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How to Talk to Your Kids About Bullying

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After being put in a medically induced coma, a 12-year-old Pennsylvania boy died this weekend following an alleged bullying attack in January.

Bailey O’Neill was involved in a schoolyard fight with two other children on January 10, and was reportedly knocked on his head.

The 6th grader suffered from a concussion and a week later started having seizures. That’s when doctors put the boy on life support and under a medically induced coma.

He was taken off life support on his 12th birthday, and passed away the following day.

It’s heartbreaking stories like this that bring bullying to the national stage.

“Over and over and over again we’ve had these sort of wake-up calls,” says Cynthia Lowen, producer of the acclaimed film "BULLY" and author of the new companion book of the same name.

“This is yet another tragedy that is catalyzing conversation about why we need to take bullying seriously and what are some of the things that need to be done.”

While it remains unclear what exactly happened to Bailey on the schoolyard that day, one of the best things parents can do is to simply talk to their kids about bullying, says Lowen.

“Parents are a huge part of the equation,” she tells Parenting.com. “Parents are absolutely critical for spreading values of empathy, of kindness, of not perpetrating violence or supporting violence in their own home."

Even if you bring up the subject with your kids, don’t expect them to come right out and tell you if they’re being bullied. 

Plus: How to Handle Preschool Bullies

“Parents are usually the last ones that are told about it,” says Lowen.

She explains that oftentimes kids won’t admit that they are being bullied because they are too embarrassed or simply don’t realize that what is happening is bullying.

Instead of directly asking if they are being bullied, Lowen suggests asking some of these more specific questions: 

• “What kinds of cliques are there at your school?”
• “Do you have someone to sit with at lunch or on the bus?”
• “Do you feel like there are a lot of rumors going around?”

If your kids still won’t talk, there are other ways for parents to spot bullying. Lowen suggests that parents keep an eye out for ripped or damaged clothing and missing personal items, like a backpack. Another red flag is if your child is skipping out on lunch.

“That’s a big one,” Lowen said. “If they’re not eating lunch it’s usually because something is going on in that lunchroom that’s making them feel uncomfortable or vulnerable.”

If your child is starting to be bullied, Lowen advises that you work with her to form a plan of action of how to put an end to it.

“Giving kids tools to try to address the problem themselves, before you as a parent step in, can be a really empowering step to take and can help kids to feel really capable in solving difficult social problems,” Lowen said.

If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to go to the school and have a conversation with an administrator. Lowen advises that you go to this meeting prepared with documentation of the bullying and a clear plan for what you’d like the school to do about it. She also suggests you should follow up frequently to ensure that the plan is working.

Plus: My Kid’s the Bully?

Even if your child isn't the one being bullied, she can still make a difference. Empower her to help and support her victimized peers. Encourage her to offer to walk a bullied student to the school office so they can file a report, or be a witness when the bullied student talks to school officials. 

It takes a brave and special child, but being the student who stands up to bullying when it occurs often encourages others to take a stand as well. Mostly, encourage your child to be the one who says something like ‘What you’re doing is wrong, and I want you to stop it.’ It’s an especially powerful message.

Has your child ever been victimized by a bully? Let us know how you addressed the problem

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