What Not To Do if Your Child is Bullied Online

No parent ever wants their child to be bullied online.

Upset teenage girl with smartphone in dark roomBut if it happens, would you know what to do about it? Better yet, would you know what NOT to do? Too often, we focus on what we should be doing that we fail to consider what we shouldn’t do at a time like this.

Getting through a child being bullied will take a lot – mostly, it will take time and patience. Here are six things not to do while you’re helping your child get past it.

1. Don’t Lecture

Best selling author, Stephen Covey, is quoted as having said that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” He’s right about that. This is the time to listen to your child, not lecture them on what happened to them or what they might have done.

Right now, the child is probably scared, but maybe not for the reason many people would expect. Being attacked can take a toll on a child, but what can make it even worse is the way that adults respond to it. Being told that they need to be able to handle it themselves, being labeled as a snitch or having their technology restricted can all make children hesitant to speak out at a time when they need it more than anything.

Isolating a victim only makes it worse. Instead, listen to what they have to say. Ask for clarification, but try to avoid asking leading questions. For example, instead of asking the child if that’s when “they posted the video on Snapchat”, ask them, “what happened next?” It will provide a clearer picture of what happened and can avoid them taking shortcuts, potentially leaving out important points which need to be heard.

2. Don’t Accuse or Overreact

Next, don’t make it worse than it really is by overreacting. After listening to the child, make sure that what’s being reported is really what happened. There are several reasons why it may not be what it appears to be at first.

  1. Typos – We all make typing mistakes and auto-correct isn’t always our friend. One misspelled word or grammar mistake can dramatically alter the meaning of a message, making it come off very differently than intended.
  2. Having a Bad Day – Anyone can have a bad day, including the typist and the reader. Letting emotions cloud our perceptions can cause problems that aren’t really there.
  3. Confusion – Maybe the person who posted it simply wasn’t clear in their meaning. Or maybe the reader misunderstood what was meant. Either way, no harm might have been intended.
  4. Failed Humor – I tell my students all the time that humor in written form doesn’t come off as it does when heard aloud. It often needs the right context and inflection to be understood.

When discussing the matter with others, especially with the parents of a child being accused of being the bully, keeping a level head can make all the difference. State the facts of the case, but avoid coming off as inflammatory. Just as you’re there to protect your child, the other parents are there to protect their child. Making the case calmly can mean the difference between having an ally and having protective parents close ranks, eliminating the possibility of meaningful dialogue.

3. Don’t Tell Your Child to Ignore It

Being able to take an active stance against bullying can go a long way to helping kids feel that they have some control in their lives. Studies have shown that the majority of kids being cyberbullied don’t report it to an adult, much less to their parents. As Rebecca Fraser-Hill indicates in this article, feeling powerless is one reason why kids don’t report it.

Parents often tell their children that if they are ever attacked online, they should just ignore it. That engaging with the bully is the wrong approach to take and the bully will move on if they don’t get a reaction from their target, so they should simply not engage and the problem will go away. That made sense to me, until I attended a program by Christa Tinari from Peace Praxis a few years ago. She advised the exact opposite and I love her reasoning.

Assuming that strategy works and they do “move on”, all you’ve done is set up another child for being bullied. Instead, the target of the bullying needs to let the aggressor know, in no uncertain terms, that their actions are not wanted. The idea is that the bully may not realize that their actions are as bad as they really are, making them stop their actions.

This can be as simple as replying back to the person and telling them that their message wasn’t appreciated and they should stop. But it will vary, depending on the nature of the initial message. Some messages are clearly a case of bullying, while others may fall under the four scenarios mentioned above in the “Don’t Accuse or Overreact” section of this article.

In some cases, the person’s intention was to bully and no amount of replying back from the target will likely get them to stop. That’s where Christa’s next idea comes into play. To reinforce the message to the bully that they’re wrong, Christa’s next recommendation was one that I’ve really taken to heart – the idea of Positive Slamming. The idea is that when someone see another person being bullied (online or offline), that others should immediately come to that person’s defense. The more people who do it, quickly and publicly, shows the bully that their actions aren’t appreciated and hopefully, makes them realize that they’re in the wrong here. It may not stop every bully, but those that believe that their behavior is perfectly acceptable and may even believe they have the support of their friends, may do a double-take and stop. They need to be made to realize that their behavior is NOT ok.

While Michele Borba doesn’t call it Positive Slamming, her article on teaching kids to be active bystanders calls out many of the same reasons why we want to get kids to be active bystanders in bullying situations. The tricky part here is that those who are defending the victim do JUST that – defend the victim. They should not go an the offensive and make matters worse.

Letting a bullying victim know that they aren’t alone in this and that there are people who care about them can literally mean the difference between life and death. Just ask anyone who has suffered at the hands of a bully, including those who have been the victim of domestic violence.

“What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor,
but the silence of the bystander.”

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner

In the event that the situation can’t be resolved through these ways, kids need to know that they need to tell a trusted adult what is happening. It might be a parent, family member, teacher, religious leader or any other adult who can help with the situation. Many kids resist telling their parents, but they need to have someone that they can trust in these situations and parents should encourage them to speak to an adult, even if it’s not with them.

4. Don’t Ignore It Either

As parents, we should not ignore what our children are saying to us, even if we think it’s a “little problem” that will likely resolve itself. Doing nothing can send them the message that their parents don’t care about what’s happening to them. Also, as Rebecca Fraser-Hill mentioned in her article, they may believe that telling about bullying won’t make a difference and that’s certainly what kids will take away from an experience where their parents tell them to ignore it.

Imagine then, when something even more serious happens, if the child does not come forward, because past experience has shown them that their parents will not do anything about it. Make sure they know – if they say something, you’ll do something.

5. Don’t Let Them Delete Anything…And Neither Should You

After telling a child that if they ever do get bullied online to just ignore it, the next bit of advice they might give is to tell them to delete it. As much as we’d like to remove all proof of such unacceptable behavior, if there is one good aspect of cyberbullying, it’s that it leaves a trail, otherwise known as EVIDENCE!

Having emails, texts or posts/comments may be the only way to prove the allegations. Print them out and keep a folder of them later. If necessary, take screen shots so that if someone else is able to delete it (and does so), there is evidence to present to parents, school officials and the police.

6. Don’t Force Mediation between the Bully and the Victim

In conflict resolution, both parties wish to come to an agreement, but that’s not the case with bullying. That doesn’t stop many people from forcing the parties involved from using mediation or conflict resolution techniques.

The bully doesn’t want the situation to change. They like it the way that it is. Conflict resolution assumes two parties disagree, but both want to come to a resolution. It can also send the message that both children are partially right and partially wrong and we are here to work this out. But that is not the case. Bullying is one-sided. The victim wants no part of it. Not only is the bully unlikely to take the process seriously, it runs the risk of antagonizing them and could make matters worse.


Remember to avoid these mistakes and hopefully, a family with a child who has been bullied online will be able to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Parents need to put their priorities on making their kids feel safe and protected, while doing what they can to prevent it from happening again.

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for more than 10 years. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that he became involved in helping others in the area. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention. Joe is the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016. Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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