For children today, there is no escape from the school bully at the end of the day. In fact, they may not be in school at all. They’re on the bus, on the walk home, at the dinner table and can even find their way into the bedroom at night. Now-a-days, the scale and speed of digital communication means that what can start off as an unkind joke can quickly spiral out of control into abuse. So, how do we as parents support our children from a threat that can often go unseen for months? How do we help our children disconnect from the unhelpful voices and taunts that affect their confidence, self-esteem, mental and emotional well-being?
What parents can do
Watch out for signs:
- Are they spending more or less time on their phone or computer (this will depend on the context of course as a child’s interest will ebb and flow).
- Do they suddenly have lots of new contacts on their social media account? If so, they may not all be ‘friends’.
- Has their mood changed after being online? Watch out for how they seem when they put their phone away or close their laptop, particularly if they are nervous or jumpy.
- Have they asked you how they can block others on, or delete, their social media account?
- Are they displaying eating and sleeping problems, or unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach upsets?
- Are they sharing negative statements about themselves, others or life in general and any indications of a dip in self-esteem, for example, head held low.
Do remember that the last two warning signs may be indications of problems with completely different causes, so these alone do not mean that your child is being cyberbullied.
Give your child support
When our daughter was having a particularly difficult time with a friendship group at school, and unkind texts and Facebook posts were flying about, my advice to her was, ‘Just ignore it”‘. She has since told me how unhelpful that recommendation was (0/10 there for my parenting skills!) Rather too late in the day, my daughter (now 20-something) tells me a much better approach would have been to have listened to her and reassured her that the bullying wasn’t her fault. It can be really upsetting as a parent to hear about, but do your best to stay calm and let you child know that you will help them through it.
Don’t stop your child going online
If children are the butt of unkind jokes or the victim of bullying, it will be almost impossible for them to ‘just ignore it’, and telling them not to go online or stopping them using their devices is also likely to be counterproductive. We might as well be asking them not to breathe, and it would most probably lead to them feeling more isolated and cut off from any network of friends that they do have.
Tell your child not to reply
All bullies are looking for a reaction, so advise your child not to reply or retaliate in any way. If an online conversation becomes abuse or makes them feel uncomfortable, they should simply leave it.
Tell your child to block the sender and report them to their social media network or gaming platform.
Get outside support
Talk to friends to get support for yourself, and if necessary, go to your child’s school as they should have an anti-bullying policy. In extreme cases, and especially if you feel your child is in danger, consider informing the police. Think also about whether to get outside help for your child. Counselling may be of benefit both during and after the episode.