The ‘Socially Vulnerable Child’ : Dealing with Bullies

Suffern psychologists, Drs. Eisen and Engler, offer tips for parents, excerpted from their new book, ‘Helping Your Socially Vulnerable Child: What to Do When Your Child Is Shy, Socially Anxious, Withdrawn, or Bullied’  (New Harbinger Publications).

   Think about how you feel at the end of the day when the stressors of life simply refuse to take a rest.  How do you gather the strength to face the challenges that lie ahead?  Many of us turn to our friends.  Now imagine how life would be if you felt that you were all alone, that you didn’t belong anywhere, and that no one wanted you.  Welcome to the world of the socially vulnerable child.

Becoming Socially Vulnerable
   Children may withdraw from social activities and relationships for many reasons, including anxiety, fear of being embarrassed, or a history of unpleasant interactions.  Whatever the reason, when social anxiety or withdrawal leads to poor peer relationships, there are usually additional problems involved.  For instance, some children may be overly aggressive, impulsive, or hyperactive.  Other children may not be socially savvy, may lack social skills, or may cry too easily.  Ultimately, these children become socially vulnerable, which means they may be ignored, excluded, or even worse, actively rejected by their peers.  Most of these children are unaware of how their behavior alienates their peers and have great difficulty understanding why they are not accepted.  

The Impact of Bullying
   Bullying is often viewed as a normal part of growing up and is even deemed by some to be a necessary “rite of passage” into young adulthood.  But, there is nothing normal or necessary about bullying.  Large-scale surveys suggest that nearly 6 million American school-age children are involved in regular acts of bullying, as bullies, victims or bystanders (observers).  More than half of all youngsters report being bullied at least once during primary or secondary school.  These statistics are alarming considering that bullying is destructive to everyone involved.   
    Bullying can take many forms including physical (direct physical contact), verbal (attacks on personal characteristics), or relational (rejection, exclusion, isolation of the victim).  Any or all of these forms of bullying can have devastating effects on its victims, including:

—Difficulty concentrating
—Low self-esteem
  That’s why it’s so important to intervene.  So, if your child is being bullied, what can you do?  First, you can help your child learn some anti-bullying strategies, which, with repeated practice, can help promote his social competence and preserve his self-esteem.

Anti-Bullying Strategies
   A child can respond to bullying with many different strategies.   With passive strategies, your child learns to remain calm during a confrontation and to give no attention to the bully.  Ignoring (walking away, not responding verbally or physically) can be useful, at times, especially when the victim risks getting in trouble for reacting.  However, it is not always the best solution for a socially vulnerable child who may unintentionally show her distress (by looking sad or crying). This could end up increasing the bully’s efforts.  If you think this might be the case, more empowering strategies such as self-talk may be in order.
   Self-talk is the use of coping thoughts to stay calm during a bullying or other stressful confrontation.  For example, your child could silently say to himself, “Relax,” “Stay calm,” or “Take a deep breath.”  Of course during stressful run-ins at school or the playground, it’s very easy for a child to “forget” to say these words or simply “go blank.”   You’ll want to practice all of these strategies with your child at home, and be sure to let your child’s teacher know what you’ve been working on so she can support your efforts in school.        
   A neutral strategy such as complimenting can be helpful for the socially vulnerable child.  The idea behind this strategy is to surprise the bully who will be expecting a strong reaction.  Imagine if your child responded to a bully’s insult by saying the opposite of his derogatory remark, as follows:

Bully:    You’re stupid.
Child:    Not everyone is as smart as you.
Bully:    You have no friends.
Child:    Not everyone is as popular as you.
Bully:    You’re such a klutz.
Child:    Not everyone is as athletic as you.

   Role-play similar situations with your child, while you pretend to be the bully.  Keep practicing until your child’s responses become automatic.  This way, he doesn’t have to think about comebacks.  
   If your child has difficulty understanding the difference between playful ribbing and mean spirited teasing, especially sarcasm, help her use humor as another neutral strategy to defuse bullying confrontations.  Humor, like complimenting is not the reaction bullies are looking for, and it’s a wonderful and simple strategy.  
  More assertive techniques are sometimes needed.  For instance, help your child respond to harassing remarks or physical acts by saying “Stop it!” “Leave me alone!” or “I don’t like it when you do that.” These simple but bold tactics, when practiced until they become automatic, can be used when other techniques don’t seem to be working.  

Getting Support
   Perhaps the most important anti-bullying strategy is the ability to seek out help in an effective way.  Make sure that your child understands and accepts the difference between reporting harmful behavior and being a tattletale.  Empower your child by developing a comprehensive system of support that includes peers, teacher(s), coaches, mental health professionals (school psychologist, social worker, or guidance counselor), and administrators.  Do your best to develop a positive relationship with your child’s teacher through phone calls or email without being intrusive.  Seek regular updates, and demonstrate appreciation for staff assistance.  Often, the school psychologist or social worker can become an important source of support.  
   Inquire about anti-bullying programs, school-wide character education, or friendship clubs.  Educate school personnel about all the forms of bullying (that it’s not just physical) and the long-term effects of not intervening.  Talk with friends and acquaintances and gently inquire about their children’s peer-related issues.  Many parents are reluctant to approach school personnel if they think their child is the only one being bullied.  Others may be unaware that their children are being bullied.  Harness the support of other parents, especially if widespread bullying is occurring in the school.

ANDREW R. EISEN, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Psychology and director of the Child Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Fairleigh Dickinson University.  LINDA B. ENGLER, Ph.D., is co-director of the Child Anxiety and Related Disorders Clinic in Paramus, N.J.
Drs. Eisen and Engler reside in the Suffern area and are also co-authors of ‘Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School School Refusal: A Step-by Step Guide for Parents’.  Visit them at