Six-year-old Madeleine is running around at the playground. Suddenly, she falls, tripping on a foot that has been deliberately stuck out. A group of older children gather around her, laughing. She begins to cry, prompting a round of name-calling from the others.
Fourteen-year-old James has been feeling isolated and rejected lately. The clique of popular boys he used to hang out with have started shunning him without explanation. They also talk about him behind his back—and he’s gotten wind of the nasty things that have been said.
Do these scenarios sound familiar? Have you or your children encountered such situations before? Unfortunately, bullying is an all-too-common experience among children (and adults too!). And it can affect kids—as well as parents—in many ways.
But what can we do about it? How can we spot it if our children are being bullied, and how can we respond (or not)? And, even more importantly, what biblical truths can we draw on as we do so?
How Should I Stand Up to Bullies?
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The Shape of Bullying
According to Koh Ai Jin, a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice, bullying can be defined as acts that physically or emotionally hurt a more vulnerable person and which are carried out by someone perceived as more powerful or aggressive.
Such acts are not always performed intentionally, she stresses, especially when the perpetrators are themselves young children. “Children who have not learned to manage their aggressive impulses will simply act them out,” she explains.
Bullying can come in different ways—physically or verbally, as an isolated act or pattern of behaviour. Physical bullying can come in the form of hitting, punching, shoving, or making the victim do humiliating things; while verbal bullying can take the form of hurtful speech, both offline and online.
“Children who have not learned to manage their aggressive impulses will simply act them out.”
Ai Jin, a mother to three teenagers, points out that Scripture highlights the way words can tear others down: “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21). Words of criticism, such as “you’re stupid” or “you look ugly in that”, can also count as hurtful speech. Other examples include unfair statements or vulgar language.
“There can also be group behaviour to ostracise a particular child,” she adds. A group of kids might get together to ostracise a child, force him to do something against his will, or damage his belongings, such as by drawing on his uniform or tearing up his books. These are actual examples that Ai Jin has come across. Often, these actions are accompanied by laughing and mocking, which can make the victim feel worse.
That being said, it can be difficult to draw the line between what is counted as bullying and what isn’t. Ai Jin, who has worked as a counsellor for over a decade, cautions that it’s hard to define bullying exactly.
Bullying happens when someone stronger hurts someone weaker.
We can, however, look at the impact on the victim. This will help us determine whether bullying has taken place, such as if a child shows signs of anxiety and social withdrawal.
For example, if a child’s self-esteem has been wounded by someone’s cutting remark, that can count as bullying. If, on the other hand, he can brush it off and isn’t affected by it, it may not necessarily be counted as bullying. In other words, bullying happens when someone stronger hurts someone weaker.
Who Might Be a Target?
Ai Jin believes that most children are vulnerable to bullying in some way, due to their developing minds and sense of morality.
“Younger children may not be mature enough to know what bullying is,” she explains. “Sometimes, they cannot tell between what is right and what is wrong, cognitively.”
As a result, children may not tell their parents that they have been bullied. This might make it harder for them to get the support they need, which in turn makes them even more susceptible to bullying.
“Younger children may not be mature enough to know what bullying is.”
Children may also have difficulty understanding that they are being bullied, Ai Jin says. “They just know something is not nice, that they’re hurt by it. But kids can easily gloss over things like that.”
As they grow older, some children may also withhold such information from their parents because they see it as part and parcel of life, as something they can handle themselves.
Children with low self-esteem, or more sensitive or introverted personalities, also tend to be more vulnerable than others, she believes. Such children may develop the habit of uncritically accepting the way things are, even when they have been wronged. “They value the other person’s words over their own feelings,” says Ai Jin.
Is My Child Being Bullied?
As parents, how can we find out if our children are being bullied, and how can we give them the help they need?
Ai Jin stresses the importance of constant communication and knowing what is happening in our children’s lives.
Due to their age and vulnerability, younger children may not immediately share that they have been bullied, as they may need time to make sense of what they’re feeling—such as fear or helplessness. It might take multiple conversations before they realise that they have been bullied, or know that they have been wronged.
Persevere in communication, even before bullying has become apparent.
Because of this, Ai Jin advises parents to persevere in communication, even before bullying has become apparent. “It is not easy to tell unless you already have regular conversations with your child,” she says. “You might then hear your child sharing what happens in their day, and then you might get a glimpse of them being bullied.”
These glimpses can come through non-verbal cues as well: look out for changes in a child’s behaviour, such as an uncharacteristic sullenness or malaise, or unexplainable bouts of irritation and frustration. “Then you might want to check in if everything is okay at school,” Ai Jin suggests.
What Can I Do Without Making Things Worse?
While bullying is a complex phenomenon with no one-size-fits-all solution, some general tips may apply:
1. Teach our children to identify bullying.
We can teach our kids to tell us immediately if they find themselves on the receiving end of such behaviour.
“Children need an adult voice to tell them that their negative feelings produced by bullying are legitimate, but that they shouldn’t have been made to feel that way.”
“Children need an adult voice to identify the exact transgression that took place, and to tell them that their negative feelings produced by bullying—such as fear and helplessness—are legitimate, but that they shouldn’t have been made to feel that way,” Ai Jin says.
2. Teach our children ways to respond to the bullying.
We can teach our kids to ignore the bullying, as some bullies enjoy provoking a strong response. Or, we can teach them to speak assertively when facing bullying, using phrases like “Stop that!” or “I don’t like it”.
“Failing which, the child may want to take it to the teacher,” says Ai Jin. However, she adds, parents may want to avoid intervening if a child is in his teenage years—unless the bullying is severe—as teens may prefer handling such situations on their own.
If a child is being bullied online, such as through a game, simply asking him to log off can prevent the situation from becoming worse.
Help them to identify any unhelpful thoughts or emotions about themselves. We can encourage them with what God’s Word says about them and their situation.
Finally, as bullied children can develop unhealthy ways of thinking because of the damage done to their self-esteem, we can help them to identify any unhelpful thoughts or emotions about themselves. We can encourage them with what God’s Word says about them and their situation—such as Romans 8:35–39, Lamentations 3:22–23 and Isaiah 40:31.
Nevertheless, Ai Jin also encourages parents not to hesitate to seek professional help or counselling, should the need arise.
What If My Child Is Bullying Others?
Some of us may discover that our own child is bullying another. It can happen, notes Ai Jin, because human nature is prone to sin, as Genesis 8:21 says: “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.”
In such situations, she encourages parents to remain calm, and to avoid blaming themselves or jumping to the conclusion that their child is a bully. Automatically labelling younger children as bullies might be unhelpful, she believes, as some might not be mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions.
A better approach might be to call out unacceptable conduct as “bullying behaviours”. “Recognise that their behaviour needs to be addressed,” she says. “But be understanding of your child’s developing self.”
“They are just children,” says Ai Jin. “They will behave the way they feel and think at the moment, without consideration of further consequences.”
“Recognise that their behaviour needs to be addressed, but be understanding of your child’s developing self.”
She advises parents to help children understand where their behaviour comes from and why such behaviour is not good—that it causes hurt and harm.
“Teach them more appropriate or acceptable ways of behaving,” she adds. “Address the reasons behind their behaviour, and impress in them good speech and kind behaviour. When you help them see how their actions can affect others, they can grow empathy and develop care and consideration for others.”
Indeed, Scripture often speaks of loving others through showing them kindness. The apostle Paul, for instance, writes in Ephesians 4:31–32: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Should parents punish a child for bullying others? Ai Jin believes that any discipline, if meted out, ought to be age-appropriate. While younger children may be disciplined with time-outs or withdrawing privileges, older children might respond better if parents sat down to talk with them about what happened and to reason with them.
Comfort in the Face of Bullying
Given time, children who have been hurt can recover, especially when they know that their parents care and that steps have been taken to resolve the matter.
As parents, we have an important role in demonstrating to them God’s love and comfort. In this, we can draw inspiration from 2 Corinthians 1:3–4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
As parents, we have an important role in demonstrating to them God’s love and comfort.
For example, we can take time to patiently listen to our children share about their feelings, and take part in activities they enjoy. Besides relieving their stress and tension, this can teach them healthy coping strategies, which can in turn enable them to grow in resilience.
“Parents are like their child’s mirror,” she says. She suggests that parents identify things that their kids are good at, and look out for opportunities to praise them for their strengths. “This will give their child a sense of security and a growing sense of self-esteem,” she says.
More than that, we can affirm our children as beloved children of God—and what better source for such affirmation than the Word of God?
You created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.