Backing off bullies: Ccounselors’ tips on helping kids keep their cool

October 2015 Posted in School

By Kristine Thomas

It wasn’t what a Silverton mom wanted to hear from her middle school daughter during the first week of school.

Julia, who asked her name be changed, said her daughter came home sobbing and told her she didn’t want to go back to school.

The reason? She was being bullied.

“There is a girl who has bullied her and talked behind her back since elementary school,” Julia said. “The girl is extremely cautious and careful not to get caught.”

Still in the thick of trying to help her daughter navigate how to handle herself and deal with the bully, Julia said this is the hardest situations she has had to deal with as a parent.

Spend some time talking to friends, reading social media sites or talking to teachers and it becomes apparent – bullying is an issue for our schools.

According to, about 28 percent of students in sixth through 12th grades have been the victim of bullying, while about 20 percent of students in high school have experienced the same issues.

The surveys reveal about 30 percent of students admit they have engaged in bullying behavior and as many as 70 percent of students state they have witnessed bullying.

Julia said she has learned the problem won’t go away on its own. She began by contacting the school’s counselor and learning what she should do and say. Now she has some helpful tips for her and her daughter to deal with the behavior.

“I learned it’s not uncommon for girls to be bullying one another in their quest to be the Alpha, especially at this age,” she said. “With girls, it’s more verbal assaults while with boys it’s more physical.”

Verbal bullying includes spreading rumors, making derogatory remarks, yelling obscenities, name calling and teasing. A bully learns what buttons to push that causes the victim to become upset.

The school counselor also shared with Julia and her daughter not react to what the bully says or does. The more the victim reacts, the more it fuels the bullying behavior. By not reacting, the bully looses interest because the bully is ultimately looking for is a reaction.

“We are trying a lot of different things like avoiding the person, reading lots of books and talking to her,” Julia said.

Julia also talked with her close friends about what is happening and in turn, her friends talked to their children about how to treat others.

“We have also taught our daughter to know who her friends are,” she said.

Julia said she has learned it’s not helpful to try to talk with her daughter about the bully or why she may be doing what she is doing.

One thing that surprised Julia was she thought bullies were kids who received poor grades, didn’t play sports, came from broken families and were known by teachers and principals for being a bully.

What she learned is a bully can be any kid – a straight A student, an athlete, a kid who attends church or a kid known as being a good kid. Julia advises parents who learn their child is being bullied to reach out to other parents for support.

“Find your village,” she said.

Julia said it’s also important a child has someone they can trust to talk with and that helps reverse the negative effects of a bully.

“I listen to all the stories my daughter shares with me and have learned she may need to share 10 stories before she finally tells me what is happening,” she said.

Mark Twain Middle School Counselor April Murphy thinks it’s a huge compliment to parents when children share that they are being bullied.

“This shows that their child feels safe reporting to them and confident that they can receive support,” she said. “If a child shares with a parent my advice is to stay calm. Often children will gauge how to respond to situations based on our response. The best thing to do is to listen and ask clarifying questions.”

Murphy understands it’s hard for parents not to jump in and solve the problem. “Now in adolescence is the greatest time to equip our students with the tools they will need to face bullies their whole lives,” Murphy said. “If we can empower them to come up with solutions on their own, we are showing them that we care enough to allow them to solve their own problems and we are building their confidence for similar situations down the road.”

Murphy said there are signs parents should look for if they think their child is being bullied.

“Every child will show they are being bullied in a different way, some withdrawal and isolate themselves, these are the most harmful cases because the child is internalizing the pain and not getting help,” she said. “You may see a dip in confidence, moodiness and signs of mild depression. On the opposite side of the spectrum some children are more external and they get angry and act out.”

If a parent is concerned, the best thing to do is seek advice, Murphy added.

Retired elementary principal Marilyn Annen said getting bystanders to speak up or act to defend victims is a crucial step in combating bullying.

Annen said “to paraphrase a quote attributed to Edmund Burke, ‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’

“The only way to stop bullying from escalating is for those who are standing by to speak up or take action to let the bully know they will not tolerate victimization of others,” Annen said.

Bullying also happens to adults, she added. “Bullying in the work place, by colleagues or supervisors, is a serious issue and will continue to be serious as long as those who have knowledge of the harassment turn a blind eye or choose not to speak up,” Annen said. “It is risky to speak up if the bully is your supervisor because the fear of losing your livelihood is very real, yet who will speak up to help those being bullied if we don’t?”

Mount Angel School District Counselor Kevin Ortega works with elementary and middle school students.

“True bullying involves an imbalance in power, is repeated, and is one-sided,” Ortega said. “ At Mount Angel schools, we are more likely to see conflicts that are isolated, two-sided or involve two students of (social) equal stature. We are fortunate in Mount Angel to have very few physical conflicts.”

Ortega said cases of true bullying are rare, which allows the staff to “jump on those cases immediately.” He emphasizes two things when it comes to bullying: assertiveness and the importance of bystanders. “We teach students that passivity or aggression are not their only choices. A truly strong person knows how to stand up for themselves in a respectful way. The self-control of being an assertive person is a true sign of strength,” he said.

Bystanders are so important because true bullying involves an imbalance in power.

“Someone being bullied needs to be strong and stand up for themselves, but they also need others to come along side of them and neutralize the imbalance of power,” Ortega said. “They need us adults, but more importantly, they need their peers to discourage bullying.”

Bullying or not bullying is mostly a product of school culture, he said.

“We are fortunate to have a culture that does not promote bullying.  That is not to say that we don’t have mean, unkind or hurtful acts. That is not to say that our kids don’t have conflicts. It’s just that the repeated, one-sided sorts of aggression have not taken root.”

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