Dear Sharon,

My 12-year-old daughter is being picked on by a group of girls in her school. She is being “bullied” by them in a variety of ways, and she’s afraid of them but she won’t let me do anything about it. She won’t let me contact the school and she becomes hysterical when we discuss it. What should we do?

Dear Parents,

I am sorry to hear that girls are picking on your daughter at school. Unfortunately this is a common problem.

Most children, especially tweens, are embarrassed or humiliated by the thought of “telling” on another child and/or acknowledging that they are not able to handle a tough social situation. Nevertheless it is usually difficult and sometimes impossible for a “targeted” child to deal with repeated bullying in the absence of adult intervention.

Of course the details of specific circumstances can be quite different but I know of many cases when a parent has gotten help by contacting their school, (sometimes even without their child’s permission or knowledge). In most of these instances Mom or Dad had a strong prior relationship with one or more staff members who they knew could be effective at offering assistance.

I often suggest that parents in your situation begin by reaching out to a teacher, counselor, or administrator they respect and who would be able to maintain their family’s anonymity. I have heard many stories of caring educators who have kept an eye out for a problem and figured out ways to intervene without anyone knowing that they received information from a parent. I also know of examples of schools that have succeeded in involving multiple staff members in thinking through solutions to bullying and who were willing to give parents feedback about progress and/or steps a child might take to help resolve the problem.

While waiting for help from school there are of course steps to be taken at home as well. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you offer support to your child.

It can be hard for a Mom or Dad to listen to their 12 year old recount all of the “gory” details of bullying without getting upset. However, if parents can manage to listen to stories and sympathize with difficulties in a relatively calm way it can help a child “get out the stress” and feel more relaxed at the end of a long day.

Sometimes parents are quick to offer solutions to complicated problems like this one. Parental suggestions can be useful but it can also be helpful for Mom and Dad to elicit their child’s thoughts about possible ways to handle the challenges coming their way. If Mom or Dad can help their child produce a few of their own solutions it can build their confidence and self-esteem even under such understandable stress and strain.

Sometimes including adult friends, relatives and other children who have witnessed or survived incidents of bullying in family discussions can help as well. “Putting a number of heads together” to generate possible solutions can produce a variety of ideas that can help.

Checking in with a child about not being alone in school and having close, thoughtful friends around can also be useful. Bullies are less likely to be effective if there are good friends that a child can talk to and stay with when aggressive behavior is happening. Setting up social occasions outside of school with caring friends can “shore up” a child’s confidence and help them go towards kind and supportive peers in difficult times.

I wish there were simple answers to the complicated problem of bullying but I do believe that getting help while offering consistent support to your child can make a big difference over time.