Dear Cici,

My kid shared that he witnessed bullying at his school, but didn’t feel comfortable intervening as his other friends laughed with the bully. How can I help him overcome peer pressure or balance his values with his actions?

Bullied in Kahului 

Dear Bullied in Kahului,

This is a difficult topic and there is no easy answer. Unfortunately, bullying is something your child will have to contend with throughout his life. As adults we are aware that bullying situations happen in our families and our workplaces; even in the public arena we see examples of celebrities and political leaders who bully others.

As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids social skills, instill values and help them build character. As with most things, kids’ first impressions and ideas about themselves and others are formed at home. If you are modeling compassion and empathy, it’s likely your kid will carry those same values out into the world. 

Bullies thrive on social validation. Those who stand by and say nothing or laugh along are only encouraging the bully, but bystanders have the power to shut them down. Talk with your kid about what he was thinking and feeling in that moment and the impact of peer pressure; discuss the risks of going along with a herd or mob mentality. Practice how he might respond to a bully using clear, simple words, maintaining eye contact and using body language to convey that you are not afraid. This is also a good time to practice emotion regulation skills as bullies tend to target those who are emotional or easily upset.

That said, there are going to be situations in which your child may not feel safe speaking up. In that case, it’s a good idea to get a teacher or another adult involved. Talk with your child about the difference between tattling (trying to get someone in trouble) vs. reporting (trying to keep someone safe). Although we should encourage our kids to work things out on their own whenever possible, adults have a responsibility to keep kids safe and to intervene when there is a serious problem.

Finally, BIK, your question suggests that your child is a sensitive and compassionate person with the capacity to see things from someone else’s perspective and this is a gift. Oftentimes bullies are themselves being picked-on at home or have other difficulties in their lives that cause them to strike out. Talking openly about this with your child may help him feel less intimidated and may even help him to have compassion for the bully; and the ability to have empathy for our enemies is a tremendous skill that should be encouraged.

Cecilia Ortiz, LCSW is a clinical social worker and a mom. She has nearly 20 years of experience including working with kids, teens, and adults in the areas of education, abuse, traume, and prevention.