Travis Price was bullied relentlessly as a child. It started in grade one, with kids calling him “toilet paper” because his initials are TP. By grade three, he was getting beaten up on the playground, and he ended up in the hospital after some particularly vicious attacks. When he reached high school, which coincided with the advent of social media, he was cyberbullied. “It was very difficult on me and my family,” says Price, now a 29-year-old bullying prevention and mental health advocate based in Coldbrook, NS. “I was forced to grow up very quickly to protect myself, avoid these situations and try to come to terms with why this was happening to me.”
Over the years, Price tried various strategies to learn how to stop bullying, including fighting back (which didn’t work) and standing up for himself and others (which did work). In 2007, when Price was in grade 12, he and his friend David Shepherd famously defended a grade nine kid who got bullied for wearing a pink shirt on his first day of high school. The friends encouraged their peers to wear pink to school the next day and bought 75 pink tank tops to hand out. About 85 percent of the student body took up the cause, sending a strong message to the bullies. Today, people in more than 130 countries participate in Pink Shirt Day, also known as Pink Day.
“That simple act of kindness changed the culture within our school and changed the way the world looked at bullying,” says Price. “Bullying would no longer be accepted. It would happen again, but we would address it immediately. We’d know that each one of us has the power to stand up to bullies.”
While most kids don’t have an army in pink standing by to help them battle bullying, there are plenty of things that they and their parents can do to stop an attack.
Kids in schools across Canada learn to deal with bullying by using their WITS (walk away, ignore, talk it out and seek help). The first two strategies are all about removing yourself from the situation.
“Kids who are intent on bullying often pick kids who are responsive,” says Bonnie Leadbeater, a WITS principal investigator and psychology professor at the University of Victoria. “If you’re walking away to a safer place, you’re not talking back, getting upset or crying. You’re basically saying that being teased doesn’t matter to you.”
When kids are being cyberbullied, they can walk away or ignore the person who is bullying by logging off the site where the bullying is happening, not respond to messages or block the person who is harassing them. Parents can help by setting rules on screen time, monitoring their kids’ social media activity and teaching netiquette. For instance, you can set limits on how much social media and messaging time your child can have and not allow them to keep their devices in their room overnight. Examples of netiquette include being kind, never posting anything you wouldn’t want the entire world to see and respecting other people’s privacy by not sharing private messages.
Walking away or ignoring reduces bullying by about 20 percent, says Leadbeater, and it’s sometimes all that’s needed to end it entirely. In other cases, though, further action is needed.
Talking it out can take various forms. Kids can stand up for themselves or someone else, have a mediated conversation with the person who is hurting them or share their feelings with a trusted friend or family member.
If kids feel safe and confident doing so, they can stand up for themselves in the moment by saying something like “You’re hurting my feelings,” “What you’re doing is not OK” or “Why are you picking on me?” Price says this strategy is effective because it turns the tables on the person who is being mean. “Nobody wants to be called out,” he says. “Nobody wants to be embarrassed or told that they’re a bad person.”
However, in the heat of the moment, kids can feel overwhelmed, making it incredibly difficult for them to process and act on what’s happening. Parents can help their kids by role-playing to prepare for such moments or working with teachers to set up mediated conversations between the kids. Bystanders can also play a pivotal role. Kids who witness bullying can say “Stop it,” “Leave them alone” or “You’re being mean.”
“Bullying can stop in 10 seconds or less if somebody intervenes,” says Price, who cites a study that found this was the case more than half the time. This was Price’s experience when a girl stood up for him and shut down an attack; in fact, it’s what inspired him to do the same for the boy in the pink shirt. “She made me believe I was worth something and showed me that one person does have the power to stand up,” he says.
Talking about what’s happening can also help. Kids can ask a friend how they would handle the situation, get advice from a trusted adult or share their story with someone who cares.
Parents can talk it out, too, but it may not always go as planned. If you call the parents of the child who is hurting your child, make sure that you’re in a solid headspace and not angry, advises Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist and founder of Connected Parenting. “You’re usually met with a mama bear or papa bear and a little bit of hostility and defensiveness because nobody sees their kid as a bully,” she says. “You have to be extremely skilled to make those conversations go well. They often end up with an argument between the parents.”
Kolari adds that making such calls is only appropriate when your child is in elementary school. After that, it’s best to speak with professionals, such as teachers, coaches and police officers, depending on the nature of the bullying and where it’s happening.
Telling a kid who is bullying that they’re hurting you can sometimes spur them on since that’s exactly what they’re setting out to do, so Kolari encourages kids to act bored.
Kolari was working with a grade three girl who used this strategy when she was being followed around the playground by a girl who was making fun of her light-up shoes. “Why are you so interested in my shoes?” the girl asked with a blank look on her face. The other girl called her a “loser,” to which she replied, “Well, if I’m a loser and you’re following me around…” She shrugged, and the other girl ran off.
“When a kid says something nasty and gets that kind of reaction, it makes them feel silly and they find someone else who has the reaction they were looking for,” says Kolari. She notes that this strategy works best in mild social jockeying situations, and further action may be needed to ensure that other kids aren’t victimized.
Kids are very good at this technique and it’s highly effective, says Kolari, adding that role-playing at home can help. If kids get flustered in the moment and can’t think of a comeback, Kolari suggests that they simply say “So?” with a shrug.
Kolari says one challenge with this approach is that you don’t want kids to feel like they can’t express how they’re feeling in the moment. “I will tell kids ‘If you can pull this off and just look mildly bored by the whole thing, then you can go home and tell your mommy and daddy and that’s OK if you cry,’” she says.
If a child is being cyberbullied, they can try this technique by making neutral comments in response. When Kolari’s 15-year-old daughter was being cyberbullied last year, she would make comments like “Does that actually feel good to you?” which would immediately quell the conversation.
There’s nothing like laughter to defuse an intense situation, which is why the WITS program encourages kids to use humour to show that they’re not bothered by bullying. However, it’s important to make the right kind of jokes. A study by Keele University in England found that children ages 11 to 13 who use self-defeating humour, like putting themselves down, are more likely to be bullied than those who use positive forms of humour, like telling jokes and funny stories. “Our study showed that humour plays an important role in how children interact with one another and that children who use humour to make fun of themselves are at more risk of being bullied,” says Claire Fox, a psychologist and lead author of the study.
If a child is being bullied because they’re doing poorly in school, instead of insulting their own intelligence, they can tell jokes like “Why did the jelly bean go to school? Because it wanted to be a Smartie!” or “Why did the kids eat their homework? Because the teacher said it was a piece of cake!” You can help your kid prepare for their comedy routine by looking up a few funny jokes and rehearsing them.
Kids often can’t handle bullying on their own, so it’s important for them to know that they can ask adults for help. “Normalizing help-seeking behaviour is the best thing we can do for kids,” says Leadbeater. “Make sure that the conversation is open so that if something happens to your child, they know they can talk to you about it and you can help them handle it.”
To encourage kids to open up, Kolari recommends using her signature CALM (connect, affect, listen and mirror) technique. It basically involves tuning in to your child and letting them set the tone for the conversation. “When parents do this, their child’s social skills improve more than half of the time because they’re feeling better from the inside out,” says Kolari, adding that there are free resources about the CALM technique on her website. “It builds emotional resilience and has a huge positive impact on mental health and social health.”
Price stresses that it’s important to not force the conversation but instead let your kids know that they can always talk to you. “If you leave that line of communication open, there will be a time when they come home from school and unload on you,” he says. “The reason I got through this is because I knew that, no matter what, my parents were always in my corner.”
Parents often need to seek help, too. The WITS program has created a pyramid of support that helps you know who to ask for help and under what circumstances. For instance, if your child is being bullied at school, you should start by speaking with the teacher before moving up the pyramid to the principal and school administration. If your child’s life has been threatened online or in person, you should go to the police immediately.
To ensure that you have all the information you need when seeking help and assure your child that you’re taking it seriously, Leadbeater recommends taking notes when your child tells you what’s going on. Find out who was involved, what happened and when and where it happened. If your child is being cyberbullied, take screenshots of the messages or save the links. The WITS program has a journal template to help parents keep track of what their kids share.
Price says it’s important to be persistent when seeking help. “If somebody doesn’t listen, you have to yell, kick and scream until somebody does because you deserve that help, and that help is supposed to be there,” she says.
Sometimes kids are bullied because they don’t know how to make friends, but parents can help by teaching them social skills and strategies to join in. You can role-play at home or host playdates and help guide the activities if necessary. “Friends protect against bullying,” says Leadbeater.
If your child is being bullied at school, you can enroll them in activities that will allow them to meet peers in other environments. “Kids can have different roles on their soccer teams than they have in their schools,” says Leadbeater. “It builds resilience in kids to see themselves in complex ways rather than just as these bullies see them.”
When Price was being bullied, his parents bought him an Xbox 360 and he met fellow gamers online. “I went outside school to find new friends,” says Price. “I felt like I had my own community.”
If you’re a teacher or coach, you can encourage kids to get to know and learn how to work with different people. “Don’t let all the soccer stars pick their friends for their practice group,” says Leadbeater. “Keep mixing it up so that you have a real team rather than competing cliques.”
Price urges kids who are being bullied to find a healthy outlet, such as sports, arts or hobbies. In addition to helping them find new friends, it can help them forget about the abuse, feel good about themselves and open up about what’s going on. It can even ensure that they don’t perpetuate bullying themselves—bullied kids often lash out in turn, but having a healthy outlet can redirect their negative energy into something positive.
When Price was being bullied, he would take his anger and frustration to the volleyball court. “I would hit a ball as hard as I could, and that was my punch—that was my scream,” he says, adding that he would also escape through video games and music. “When I did these things, it took my mind off bullying and helped me voice what was happening to me when my parents asked.”
Whenever Price speaks to parent groups, he always encourages them to ensure that their kids look after themselves. “Make sure that they eat healthy meals, get proper sleep and look after their bodies,” he says. “Take that phone out of their room at bedtime. Don’t let them sit there and see those negative messages coming through because it will keep them up.”
Price encourages kids who are being bullied about their physical appearance to avoid fixating on it and focus on the positive. “Look in the mirror and, instead of seeing what people attack you for, find something you love about yourself,” he says.
Hurt kids hurt kids, and understanding this can help kids who are being bullied cope. “You don’t want to make your child feel guilty for being mistreated, but you want to say that anyone who is being nasty is in pain,” says Kolari. “Something isn’t working out very well in their life and they need help to learn how to behave differently.”
This can help kids understand that there’s nothing wrong with them and the problem lies with the other person. It’s also an opportunity to teach compassion. “Nobody is a bully,” says Price. “People use bullying behaviour. They’re venting, and not in a healthy way. They’re bringing that person down to make themselves feel better.”
This is why Price advocates for a restorative justice approach when dealing with bullying, which emphasizes repairing the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. This not only improves that relationship but also sets kids up for healthy relationships in the future and stops the cycle of bullying.