Q. Dear Bracha, My ten year old son comes home from school very disturbed. Apparently there is a class bully who humiliates and teases him and does the same for anyone who tries to oppose him. While I suggested to my son that I would call his teachers, principal or the parents of this boy to apprise them of the situation, he is afraid of repercussions and things turning even worse. What should I do? Is there a way to teach him how to handle these bullies?

A. You are asking me a very difficult question. Unlike other parenting questions where the action to correct the situation is largely in the hands of the parents, in bullying, most of the time parents are helpless to protect their child and must rely on others involved—which may have poor results.

First let me say that your son's fear of repercussions is unfortunately well founded. As we all know children can be quite cruel at times and whatever he is experiencing, it can get worse. Bullying is a very serious problem and should never be taken lightly.

The main thing to understand is that bullying is an attack on a person's self-esteem. The bully makes the victim feel helpless to control the situation as well as literally telling the victim he is worthless. Your primary concern after the safety of your son would be to build up his self-esteem in real and tangible ways in order for him to be able to grow and gain strength, so that he will never be in a position of believing what the bully is saying about him. Eventually it is hoped that the victim will be able to truly understand that no one has the right to do this to him or her—which is the first step in giving your child the ability to stand up to the bully on his or her own.

No matter what is going on at school, make sure your son is involved in the home doing things that are helpful or developing skills that he appreciates and you can comment positively on. As long as he can think of himself as a capable person he will have what it takes to rise above his current situation.

It may be useful to look into groups that help children develop social skills or are geared to those children having problems such as your son. Start by asking your pediatrician about any information he may have in this area.

Let me leave you with a few more thoughts about bullying:

  • Some schools have a zero tolerance policy for bullying. However the policy is only as good as those who implement it. Direction and effectiveness comes down from the top. You should assess the competence of the administration and teachers who will be directly involved if you bring the matter to their attention. If you wish to go ahead and speak to them, it is not necessary for you to mention the perpetrator's name. By withholding the name of the bully, yet making sure the adults are aware that bullying is taking place, allows them to increase their vigilance of the classroom situation in a more even manner. A lot depends on whether the school has been successful in handling such situations in the past, as, like everything else, it takes practice to be able to deal these situations effectively.

    Some schools have done an excellent job in training their students to support one another and stand united in unfair situations. Teaching children to voice their concerns as a group, to stand up to the perpetrator and tell him that he is being unfair or mean, has an immediately positive effect on the situation. The perpetrator is also a person that the staff should be focusing on to promote his self worth by commenting when he behaves positively.
  • The experts will tell you that "in an extreme situation where the bullying cannot be controlled, the child should be removed from the setting (e.g. school, camp, clique, etc.) where this is happening. No matter the hardships (social, financial, etc.) involved in such a move, one should never underestimate the long term emotional negative effects bullying can have on a child."

    Even though I would agree with this statement, we live in an imperfect world. Removing a child from his friends because of a bully may be fraught with problems and make a bad situation worse. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that the new school will be without a bully ready to pounce on the "newbie" who has no friends to protect him. Please judge the situation carefully and, if this turns out to be your answer, proceed with caution.
  • In all situations where a child is under stress I suggest that families consider adopting an animal such as a cat. Animal therapy is totally amazing and I have seen it work wonders. Sitting and stroking a pet will bleed off tension that otherwise will remain inside your child or come out as anger at family members who are the only safe targets your child has.
  • Sometimes people who have this problem tell me it is because their son is too shy or not assertive enough. While these may be contributing factors, the fact is your child is probably a good kid. We all know that a bully does not pick on another child who he is afraid will "knock his block off"; he chooses "safe targets."

    I know what I am speaking about. I also had a son who had troubles with a bully (many years ago before I became wise...). My son was the strongest child I knew and very good natured. In frustration over the unrelenting situation I told him to hit the bully as hard as he could. My son came back the next day and when I asked him did he hit the bully, he said no, "Mom I just couldn't do it, hitting is wrong." And you know he's right and who taught that to him…I did. So I ask you to try to keep things in perspective and remember your son is showing good character traits, as it says in Ethics of the Fathers 4:1: "Who is strong? One who controls his passions." Your son did not respond in anger and strike out at his tormentor; he is showing the good stuff he is made of!

I hope I have been some help in this difficult situation.

Wishing you and your family all the best!