How do we handle bullying?

Bullying. It’s a part of parenthood that we all hope we can avoid. If our child is being bullied or is bullying others, tough times are sure to follow. What can we do to help? Hear firsthand accounts of bullying from author Laurie Gauger-Hested and learn about the growing problem of cyberbullying from licensed counselor Sarah Reik.

I have stories. True stories.

Seven girls cherry-pick an eighth and assail her with text messages prominently featuring the b-word. Sophomore boys taunt a classmate with a little jingle about his dental issues. An entire third grade channels a boy’s lisp into a nickname that echoes into his adulthood. Cheerleaders criticize the awkward girl on the squad so relentlessly that her mother shows up at practice, calling out their cruelty, questioning their Christianity, crying herself through it all.

I sympathize with that mother—watching helplessly as her daughter shrinks before her very eyes, wondering whether she really is stupid and ugly.

I have no easy answers for bullying. Pray? Of course. Turn the other cheek? Unfortunately, it usually invites more abuse. Reason with the bully—or her parents? They’re not renowned for their conciliatory spirits. Fight back? A Christian psychologist told a boy to punch his bully in self-defense, and—voila!—the sinful behavior stopped. Is that the answer?

Some throw in the towel from the get-go: “Kids will be kids. Sensitive kids just have to toughen up.” Sadly, there’s truth there. We can’t make people behave. We can only decide how to respond.

This is where we parents come in. If our kids are being mistreated, we can shore up their battered psyches: “God made you amazing! Those boys cannot tell you what to do. Those girls cannot decide who you will be. Let’s pray—that the bully will stop, yes, but that no matter what happens, you’ll find ways to rise above this. And while we’re at it, let’s pray for the bully too.”

We can also discuss what drives the bad behavior: “Bullies don’t know they’re bullies. They’re scared—scared they won’t get the acceptance and applause they feel they

deserve. So they fight for it—with fists, with words, with manipulation so subtle even we adults sometimes can’t see it.”

And more: “That bully can’t keep up with you on the court or in the classroom, so she has to reclaim her power position by tormenting you.” Or, “That bully’s father has a short temper, so he’s just paying it forward.”

By exploring bullies’ motivation, we cultivate our kids’ empathetic imaginations—a quality bullies lack, incidentally. And perhaps our kids can find a chink in the bully’s armor—a sliver of vulnerability, a speck of human decency, maybe even a way to the tormenter’s tormented heart.

There’s also a flip side: “Is my kid a bully?” This one takes some humility and maturity to consider.

Are they obsessed with popularity? Quick to mock and sneer? Belligerent or physically aggressive? Frustrated when they don’t get their way? Pouty when they don’t get attention? Do they blame others for their lack of success? Roll their eyes at authority figures?

Have they never mentioned any bullying? Then maybe they’re the bully.

If we’re inadvertently raising little tyrants, we need to make some changes, don’t we? Otherwise they become grown-up tyrants—browbeating their spouses, frightening their children, manipulating their colleagues.

We can start by taking away the little bullies’ insecurities. We help them feel safe, loved, and valuable. Borrowing from Maslow a bit, I’d suggest . . .

1. We make sure we’re dependable parents. We provide hot food, clean jeans, on-time rides to practice and lessons, and general tranquility at home. We keep them safe.

2. We show we love them—just as they are. We have time for them. We listen. We allow them to ask questions and disagree with us. We take them seriously. They belong in this family, and they always will.

3. We remind them they’re loved by someone even larger. Their heavenly Father formed them in the womb. Jesus demonstrated his deep love by shedding his blood and dying for them. He understands their pain, weaknesses, and strengths. They’re very special in his eyes, and—this is important—so is everyone else.

4. We nurture their empathetic imaginations by calling attention to others’ needs: “Did you notice Owen sitting by himself again? What would it feel like to always be picked last, like Amber is?” And going in another direction: “Seems like Emma’s good at everything—do you think her life is easy in every respect? Nick is always cracking jokes—why is that?” We can nudge our kids out of their egocentricity and open their eyes to see the hearts of their fellow human beings.

5. We teach them common courtesy. Unless everyone is invited to the party, handing out invitations at school is unacceptable. Though they’ll have special friends, being unkind is sinful. Social media is great, but being nasty online is unacceptable.

6. We supervise them without apology. This is our job. We won’t tolerate criticizing, marginalizing, or hurting others—including their siblings. We check their texts and all their online accounts. It’s not an invasion of privacy—it’s parenting. When they sin, we dole out consequences.

7. We teach them resilience. When things don’t go their way, when they fail, we remind them they can’t blame others. They’re not victims. They can dust themselves off, make different choices, harness the gifts God gave them, and try again.

8. Maybe most of all, we model kindness—the kind of kindness Jesus showed to us. Our kids need to see us not being bullies—not mocking or criticizing people, not marginalizing those who aren’t as together as we think we are, not losing our tempers at the drop of a hat, not manipulating people to gain sympathy or power.

Kids will be kids? I’d add, “Parents need to be parents.” God help us be wise ones, whether our kids are the victims of bullies or the bullies themselves.

Laurie Gauger-Hested and her husband, Michael, have a blended family that includes her two 20-somethings and his preteen son.