A number of parents have written to us asking for help about what to do when neighbors are bullying their children outside of school. This comment that was recently posted on our blog is typical:
My 12-year-old daughter is being bullied by two 13-year-olds. My husband and I have tried talking to each of their parents to no avail. The parents were defensive and acted like they didn’t think it was a big deal.
The boy has hit my daughter, and the police were called. According to the police, because my daughter hit back, she is also considered a “suspect” and both kids would have to go to court and it would be a “he-said-she-said” situation.
This is happening outside of school, in the mobile home park where we live. These bullies look for my daughter whenever she’s outside and call her nasty mean names. It’s not fair to my daughter to keep her locked in the house like she’s the one being punished, but I don’t know what else to do. I changed her school because I didn’t feel she was safe walking home from school. When the bullies knew she was home alone, they would come up to our gate or send other kids over to see if she could come out. The name-calling has just gotten worse. How do I teach my daughter to protect herself from hurtful words and behavior?
Here is the reply I wrote to this mother, along with some additional suggestions from our Kidpower community and a checklist we are developing for how to choose a good therapist.
I am very sad to hear that this is happening to your daughter and appreciate your commitment to helping her. Facing this kind of harassment near her home would be terrible for someone of any age. It is not your daughter’s fault, and it is extremely unfair. Here are the steps that other young people have found to be important in healing, learning, and growing from this kind of experience.
1. Express your support over and over and over in a calm and grounded way. Tell your daughter that the behavior of these two kids is not her fault and that you are thankful she is talking with you and not trying to face this very difficult problem alone.
Tell her that this kind of bullying has happened to many young people who have learned skills for protecting themselves that have served them very well as adults – and one of the most important tools for protecting herself is to keep you informed – and that you are going to keep working on the problem with her together. In order to be a safe person for your daughter to come to, you need to give her space for talking about her feelings without acting upset or giving lectures.
2. Get professional counseling. Despair, hopelessness, and helplessness can lead to severe depression, which can build up and become overwhelming. Even if your daughter doesn’t seem depressed, this is a very upsetting situation. We recommend professional counseling for anyone being bullied or harassed at this level to help work through these feelings.
Any threat to your child is of course deeply upsetting to you as her mother – and kids need to have space for their own feelings without dealing with the upset feelings of their parents, so we would encourage you to also get professional counseling so that you can stay calm as you work with her on how to solve this problem.
You can ask the school counselor, local family services organization, or your daughter’s doctor for a referral to a therapist. Often, especially in larger companies and workplaces, you can find free or low costs counseling through an Employee Assistance Program or the Human Resources Department.
Even if highly recommended and with lots of credentials, counselors have different approaches, skills, and personal qualities. Interview different people so that you can choose someone who is the right “fit” for your daughter and for yourself. Look up this person’s qualifications, licensing, and ratings online. Don’t stop until you find a therapist who:
- is certified by a high quality university-based program with supervised clinical hours
- has specific experience or training in the issues you are dealing with
- makes a genuine connection with you
- listens carefully and compassionately without judgment
- does not talk much about her or his own life
- remembers who you are and demonstrates understanding about what your issues are
- acts respectfully at all times towards everyone
- focuses on helping to empower clients to find solutions rather than just processing feelings
- upholds excellent personal and professional boundaries
- accepts feedback well
- does not support destructive choices
- uses a variety of methodologies to assess and address personal issues
- provides insights that help you to move forward
- feels “right’ inside your gut
- demonstrates high integrity at all times
3. Explore your legal options. Since their parents are not willing to take responsibility for ensuring that their children act in a safe and respectful way, explore your legal options. The kind of constant harassment and physical intimidation you are describing is against the law. I don’t know what the rules are in your mobile home park, but maybe you can make or enforce some kind of anti-harassment policy. You might also ask for help in talking with the parents from a local community conflict resolution program.
Another possibility is to get a restraining order making it illegal for these two young people to approach or contact your daughter in any way. At the very least, you can find a sympathetic police officer who will know the background if you need to make another report and who can tell you when such a report is possible. If you don’t know how to find an attorney, you might start with your nearest legal aid society, the police department, or community conflict resolution program.
4. Help your daughter find positive peer groups. This often includes changing schools, as you did. Find youth groups or places with positive adults where your daughter can volunteer, learn new skills, enjoy recreational activities, or get involved in other ways. Here is a video made by young people from our Kidpower of Colorado Teen Advisory Board, several of whom who have faced severe bullying.
Walk in Another’s Shoes: Teens Speak Out About Bullying
5. Help your daughter learn self-protection skills. Help your daughter learn the skills described in these articles.
7 Emotional Safety Techniques from Kidpower
If possible, give your daughter the opportunity to take a positive and empowering personal safety program, such as our Teenpower workshops.
6. Set a good example. Make sure you are modeling staying centered, respectful, persistent, and determined in dealing with this and other problems with both adults and young people. As adults, we have both more choices and more power than most children. They are going to learn more from what we do than from what we say. Young people are more likely to have safer, happier lives if they see their adults deciding to:
- take positive, balanced action rather than panicking
- find solutions rather than seeking blame,
- get help rather than trying to solve problems on their own,
- act as if bullying behavior is unacceptable and stopping ourselves and others from doing it.
Here are some articles for helping adults deal with bullying:
Mean Adults? – Five Kidpower Skills to Address Adult to Adult Bullying
7. Remember that bullying can become a chance to grow. Bullying can lead to great growth – as well as causing big problems. With clear boundaries, better skills, and strong support, everyone involved can learn what to do, as well as what to not do.
Bullying is common in most kinds of groups. At Kidpower, we have seen bullying between managers, college students, toddlers, people who are coping with a disability, neighbors, preschool teachers, people playing sports, people doing community service, people who are extremely low income, people who have tremendous financial wealth, and people living and working in homes for the elderly – as well as between children, parents, and educators in schools.
The good news is that bullying incidents can present us with opportunities to learn and practice social skills – and to build more healthy relationships.
Learning how to take charge of their own safety, how to act safely towards others even if they feel frustrated or upset, and how to advocate effectively empowers most people and gives them tools to better manage future conflicts and relationship issues.
As one mother wrote, “ I look at what my son gained from the episode of his life when he got badly bullied and then was bullying for a short period of time himself (which made us find out about him being bullied), I must say that he’s so much better off now. It was not easy, it was not quick, but it taught all of us such a lot of good things. Because of the work we did together and the support we received, my son learned to make new friends. He became strong in himself and immune to peer pressure – the dream of every parent for a teenager!”
We are now working on an article about dealing with bullying adult neighbors and would appreciate your ideas and stories, as well as an article about how to choose a good therapist. Unless you post a comment on our public blog, we will protect your identify by changing details of any story you share with us. Please feel free to write to us at email@example.com