In our latest Ask Her column, clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson – who specialises in therapy, treatment, and counselling for individuals, couples and families – talks to us about bullying at school:
Q: I have a feeling my child is being bullied at school but I don’t know how to open up the topic. What can I do to make her talk and help her out? How do I help my child open up to me?
If you suspect that your child is being bullied, encouraging them to open up about it can be tricky. Research indicates that approximately half or more of children and teenagers who experience bullying never report the bullying to an adult. These figures hold even for children who have been explicitly advised to tell an adult when they are being bullied.
Children and young people cite a range of reasons for keeping bullying to themselves. Some view bullying as normal and “just the way things are”, with the attitude that it is not serious enough to warrant adult attention. Others view bullying as serious, but feel hopeless about adults’ ability to make a difference. Some fear that adults will make the bullying worse, for instance by overreacting, becoming intrusive, breaking confidences, or embarrassing them in front of their friends. Others fear that adults won’t take their feelings seriously, won’t believe them, won’t care, or will blame them for the situation.
To help your daughter, or any child, open up, work on addressing these fears and concerns. In your day-to-day interactions with your child, make your relationship as safe a place as possible for them to talk to you. Focus on listening to your child at times when they do want to talk – about anything that is important to them – and work on understanding and caring about what they think and feel. Show them that you take their feelings seriously and respect their priorities, opinions and concerns, no matter how young they are.
To open up the topic of bullying over time, try relating some of your own experiences as a child, in an age-appropriate way. In the process, aim to show your child that you understand the issues that might be worrying them – adults making things worse, adults blaming children, adults over- or under-reacting. Through your storytelling aim to indirectly reassure your child that you have sufficient insight to respond more helpfully.
If all else fails, rather than pressuring your child to open up about bullying directly, try raising the topic of their concerns about you and your responses. For instance, “When I was a kid I kept a lot of things from my parents because I was scared about how they’d react. I worried that if I told them what was going on in my life, they would take over and make things worse. Do you ever worry that I might respond that way to you?”
In tandem, aim to inspire faith that your child can trust you to respect their needs and wishes. Make a general habit of asking your child what they need from you, and how you can help them, rather than imposing solutions from above. This can be deceptively difficult to do as a parent, but also deceptively powerful, particularly for a child who is being bullied.
Having planted the seeds of faith in you, continue cultivating them and give them some time to grow. Aim to create as many relaxed opportunities between you and your child as you can, in which they are at ease enough to open up.
Most of all, use your own knowledge of your child, and your own strengths as a parent. What usually works to get your child talking? What has worked in the past? What tends to put them at ease and relax their defences?
Don’t give up. Keep trying with sensitivity and love. You will get there in the end. And your relationship with your child will be stronger for it.