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Parents: What to do about bullying

Author and parenting expert Rosalind Wiseman offers tips on how to spot if your child is being harassed and how to keep mean kids at bay.
/ Source: TODAY

Teen and parent expert Rosalind Wiseman, author or "Queen Bees and Wannabees," answers your difficult questions about the challenges of being bullied:

Q. What are the signs your child is being bullied?
A. There are several behavior signs you can look for that might indicate your child is being bullied.

1. Gives Excuses for Avoiding School: Your child starts asking to stay home because of varied physical reasons, stomach aches, headaches, etc. They would prefer to be isolated than in social situations.

2. Change of Appetite: You notice a change in your child's appetite — and it can be more or less. Some kids eat their feelings and start overeating. So don't ignore a big appetite any more than a child who suddenly is "not hungry".

3. Drastic Change of Social Life: You see a change in your child's friends, going from a few friends to none. In some cases, they even avoid their old friends. 

Q. What should parents of bully victims do?
A. There are several things parents can do.

1. Don't say "just ignore it" or "just show them what a good friend looks like," because if often comes across as a sign of weakness to the bullies. Instead, if your child tells you they are being bullied you say, "I'm so sorry that happened to you. Thank you for telling me and together you and I are going to figure out what you can do."

2. Help your child articulate their feelings: Ask your child to take their bad feelings and put them to words. Have them describe exactly what the bully is doing that they don't like and what they want changed. Remind your child that they have the right to be in the school (or anywhere) without having people treat them like dirt.

If your child hasn't talked you and you're worried. Talk to them one on one and say, "I'm not sure if this will ever happen to you but it's common for people bully to each other. It's common for people to use the internet and cell phones to humiliate other people. If that happens to you, you can always come to me and we can talk about what to do about it. And you aren't weak if you ask for help. Problems like this can be too big for one person to handle all by themselves."

If your child is uncomfortable talking to you, you can even suggest that the two of you decide together on another adult who the child feels comfortable confiding in to get the support and advice they need. Let them know that their conversations can be confidential unless there's any danger to their personal safety. 

3. Strategize a safe approach of the bully: You have to give the bully one shot to understand your child's feelings. Why? For two reasons. First, you have to give them the opportunity to stop on their own.

And second, you have to, to the best of your ability, stand up for yourself. This is really important. The child has to feel empowered to stand up for themselves. So, together, you can prepare what your child wants to say, what they don't like about what the  bully is doing and what they want them to do differently. Then strategize about when and where to approach this child. If your child feels physically safe, they should try to do it in private -- not in front of others because bullies are emboldened by crowds and feel the need to defend their image. If they are seen listening to you, then they look weak.

I use an acronym to teach how to handle these situations and communicate when you are angry: SEAL

Stop: Breathe, observe, and decide if it's best to confront the person now or later.

Explain: Take your bad feelings and put them into words, specifically what you don't like and what you want instead.

Affirm and acknowledge: your right (and the other person's right) to interact with people without being ridiculed, dismissed, or targeted for further degradation. If appropriate, acknowledge your part in contributing to the conflict.

Lock in the friendship, lock it out, or take a vacation (this should be used as a last resort when you have a pattern in the relationship where the person isn't respecting your request(s).) Using this strategy is not a guarantee that the person will change his/her behavior. Instead, your first goal is to take the bad, nervous feelings you have and put them into words-first for yourself so that you can then tell others. Second, think about when and where you can talk to the person so you have the best chance of them listening to you. Third, specifically state what you don't like and what you want instead. Fourth, affirm your (and the other person's) rights and acknowledge anything you need to do better. You have been successful if you are able to do any of these steps - so don't think you are a failure if any of the steps outlined above do not go exactly as you wanted.

What SEAL looks like in a situation: "Sara" is angry at three girls who are excluding and mean to her. She prepares by writing down why she is angry and who she wants to talk to. She could easily need and want to talk to all three but it's usually better to confront someone individually. This time she chooses Ilana, the Queen Bee. Sara knows that Ilana has 5th period free and hangs out in the library's computer center so she plans to talk to her there.

Sara: Hey Ilana, can I talk to you for a minute?

Ilana: Well, I am sort of busy right now and why would I want to talk to you?

Sara: Look, I know that you don't want to be friends but telling me to leave you alone and get my own friends was mean. Sometimes I feel like you want to be friends and then the next minute you can't stand me. I am asking that you stop treating me so hot and cold.

Ilana: Well, there was absolutely no reason to go crying to your mom about that sleepover. Now I am in trouble-which is completely stupid.

Sara: Well I am not going to apologize for talking to my mom when I am upset. Listen, we don't have to be friends but I do have the right for you to tell me to back off in a way that doesn't make me feel like dirt.

Ilana: Whatever, I think you are making way to big a deal over this.

*Please note that Ilana and Sara are not best friends after this conversation nor has Sara verbally destroyed Ilana. The goal of SEAL is to strategize how to confront someone successfully and then articulate your position.

4. If necessary, approach the school together: If the bullying behavior gets worse or doesn't stop, then strategize with your child about who in the school can be your advocate, a teacher, coach, counselor, etc. Go to them, articulating exactly what is happening, what you want stopped and what you want to happen instead. Make sure your child advocates for themselves. They should know that you — their parent — has their back, but let them do the talking.

It is important that they speak for themselves as much as possible. If nothing is working and there is no change, then go to the person at your school who is in charge if discipline - usually a vice principal or principal.

Q. Can you ever approach other parents?
A.Yes. You can approach other parents but you have to be smart about it. You call them and say, is now a good time to talk? If it's not, make a time to call again. But if it is, say "Thanks so much for taking my call." Identify yourself as your child's mother. You have to express how hard a call this is to make and describe what is happening to your child. Say exactly what your child said. Don't beat around the bush. Ask the other parent for their help to make sure this stops.

If they say it's just kids being kids, you say, "Just because it's common doesn't make it right. I'm really asking for you to help me."

It's important that you keep your cool when you call. Stress that you know these things can go both ways and mention your availability should anything happen in the reverse.

Q. When it comes to reporting bullying to authorities, a lot of kids are afraid because they don't want to make the situation worse. What do you tell them?
A. Many parents and kids are reluctant to report beaus they will make the problem worse. here is way to understand the difference between Reporting Vs. Snitching.

Snitching is giving information with the intention of getting the other person in trouble.

Reporting has the best interests of others in mind and involves telling a trusted adult so they can help solve a problem that is bigger than you. It's goal is to right a wrong.

A person reports a problem with the intention of making the problem go away while a person snitches with the intention of making  the problem bigger or more public.

Here's a sample example of how you child can handle being confronted by a bully or other kids after your child has reported a problem:

"I can't believe you got them/me in trouble…"

Stop: Breath deeply and remember why you told.

Explain: I reported that…(Keep it general and brief. You don't owe them details).

Request: If you disagree with me, I totally understand that. I'm asking you that you not talk to other people in a way that makes fun of me. I know I can't control that but I am asking you not to.

Affirm: They didn't get in trouble because I reported it. They got in trouble because they did it. I have the right to be at this school and report something that I think is dangerous or could get me in trouble.

Rosalind Wisseman is the founder of the Empower Program, a national violence-prevention program. She is also the author of "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence," published by Crown in May 2002, and was the basis for the 2004 hit movie, "Mean Girls." For more parenting tips, visit