Bullying, written with red paintbrush on a wall. Conceptual image.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month! This was created to increase awareness and educate people about bullying and cyber-bullying. Crystal Carter, supervisor of Bullying Prevention for Jefferson County Public Schools, says, “We’re trying to increase the knowledge of kindness, inclusion, and acceptance.” October 21 is Unity Day, in which people around the world will unite for a world free from bullying.

School teaches more than reading, writing, and that new math all the kids are doing. Children absorb valuable life lessons in areas like responsibility, empathy, and social interaction. These types of emotional experiences are impactful and can have a lasting effect on a child’s development. As a parent or caregiver, if you suspect your child is being targeted by a bully, there are steps you can take to support your kid and de-escalate the situation.

According to Stopbullying.gov, about 20% of students ages 12-18 have reported being the target of a bully. Bullying behaviors can include “unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived imbalance of power, and repetition or likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education.

One way to help your child is to have early conversations about bullying. Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, says, “Talk about how your kids are going to handle behaviors that are uncomfortable for them or they think are harmful.” PACER’s goal is to lead social change and prevent bullying so that children of all ages feel safe in their schools, communities, and online. Creating a comfortable space for children to speak freely about what school life is like is one way to keep them feeling safe. “Let them know that if someone is harming them that you want to have a conversation about it,” Julie says.

If the day comes when your child tells you they’ve become the target of a bully, Crystal Carter, supervisor of Bullying Prevention for the Climate and Culture division of Jefferson County Public Schools, says your first step is to affirm your child’s feelings. Let your child know it’s normal to feel scared, angry, upset, or any other emotion that comes up for them. “That sets the tone for the whole conversation,” Crystal begins, “and that they have a right to tell somebody and they have a right to get help.”

Once that understanding tone is established, Julie suggests asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are asked in such a way so that more details are required than a simple “yes or no” answer. This allows parents and caregivers to establish a better idea of what their child is experiencing. Julie says some kids will open up right away while others might be too scared, so letting kids know you’re there for them is important.

Now that your child has confided in you, Crystal says the next step is to assess for safety. “Maybe we need to get a counselor involved or reach out to collaborate with another department in the school,” Crystal says. The top priority is to have a support system in place to keep your child safe. Then the parents, child, and teachers can come up with an appropriate plan of action. Crystal says this could be having a buddy walk with your child to class or asking a teacher to check in on them.

Not only does bullying happen in person, but 15% of kids ages 12-18 reported being bullied online or through text, according to stopbullying.gov. “If your kids are doing interactive gaming, there’s already the potential for bad behaviors to start happening. That’s another great place to start talking about the issue,” Julie says. She goes on to say that parents can set family rules. Parents can tell their kids to notify them if anyone online says anything mean or uncomfortable to them, and then together parents and kids can problem-solve a solution.

If you’ve discovered your kid is someone who bullies, there are supportive steps for you too. “This is about behavior, and behavior can change,” Julie says. Kids try on behaviors for a lot of different reasons, so it’s important to find out why yours has decided to step into this one. Julie says to be sure to talk through this with your kid so they can understand the impact of their actions, and “meaningful consequences” can play a role here as well.

Shining the light of awareness on bullying shifts the conversation to a place of support and prevention. Early and honest talks before school begins can give your child the tools they need to advocate for themselves. Should your child reveal they’ve been targeted by a bully, validating their experience will create a safe space for all that follows. And don’t forget, “It’s always appropriate to contact someone and ask for help,” Crystal says. Whether it’s a teacher or guidance counselor, support is always available for you and your child.

What can I do if my child tells me he or she is a bystander to bullying?
Here is what JCPS Bullying Prevention Department recommends:

• Teach your child not to laugh at or join in bullying.

• Tell your child to join with other bystanders and “stand up together” to convince the person displaying bullying behavior to back down.

• Help your child learn how to help the person harmed walk away.

• Assure your child that he or she can tell a trusted adult in the school.