Dear Therapist:

I am looking for advice on how to deal with bullying in school on the elementary school level. I have found a lot of conflicting opinions on it. There are those that emphasize standing up to the bully, others ignoring the bully, and those that say neither works. A lot of warnings about how having the child who is being bullied change his/her behavior is "blaming the victim" and that how can you really expect a young kid to stick up for themselves. Some people have strongly discouraged involving the school staff in dealing with it because the kid just gets branded a tattletale and they say you need to teach the kid how to manage it on their own. Overall, I don't feel like I have a clear understanding of what the proper approach is. Obviously, every case is different and maybe there is a difference between someone getting beat up and someone getting teased, but I am hoping that the panel could share their overall opinions and advice on how to help a child who is being bullied in school. 



There may be a difference between getting beaten up and being teased, but which is worse? Of course, this depends on the person being bullied, level, frequency and duration of the bullying, who the bully is, the relationship between the two, other relationships within the class and the school at large, ways in which the bullying affects other relationships, the child’s relationship with teachers and other staff…and the list goes on. These are some concrete factors that will affect the extent to which bullying can do lasting damage.

On a personal and emotional level, factors like sense of self, sense of general comfort and safety,  each child’s comfort level within the school and in their own skin, their level of internalization of abusive acts, and many other aspects of personality and emotional reaction will contribute to differing reactions—and therefore to varying levels of emotional pain. The same action that leads to one child’s strong emotional trigger may leave another child unmoved.

Each child requires their own brand of parenting, education, and cognitive and emotional training. When it comes to bullying, this principle holds. There is no generally “appropriate” way of handling a bullying situation. Certainly, some children can do well by standing up to the bully, but this depends on many factors, like those mentioned above. However, this may not always be appropriate. Also, depending on the child’s personality, this can actually make things worse.

If you have confidence in the school’s individualized understanding and handling of situations—or if there is a specific faculty member whose opinion you trust—constant communication can help them to properly address the issue.

Unfortunately, there may be situations in which there is no good solution. Sometimes a child will adamantly refuse to allow any intervention for fear of reprisal or, as you say, of being branded a snitch. Other times, the school is not equipped to properly handle the problem. Talking to your child about their feelings can help them—and you— to better understand the ways in which the bullying is impacting on them.

Often, children feel that if they are being bullied it must mean that there is something wrong with them. This can lead to insecurity and low-self-esteem, which may in turn lead indirectly to further bullying. When parents understand the thoughts and emotions that are caused by bullying, they can help the child to reframe their understanding of the reason for the bully’s actions. Placing the negative emotional onus on the bully (where it usually belongs) can help children to better deal with the negative effects of bullying.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317


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