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Claire N. Barnes, MA Headshot

Divorce Children And Bullying

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I had the privilege recently of attending an anti-bullying conference sponsored by the U.S. Attorney's office. I came away from the conference a true believer in the close relationship between bullying and the childhood difficulties caused by parental separation.

The first person I met at the conference was an assistant District Attorney from a nearby California county. Her work involves juveniles in the criminal justice system and she drew a direct link between bullying and high conflict families. She observes a larger number of juvenile offenders playing out inter-parental conflict by displacing their aggression and directing it at other youngsters. Parents who act with intimidation and perpetuate physical or psychological harm are teaching their children to use those tactics to solve problems. It's an, "if it's okay at home, it's okay at school" mentality.

Because they are exposed to and observe high-conflict adults, children and youth of all ages model destructive behaviors at school. Parents are role models for their children and abusive behavior can be inter-generational. This direct link to bullying increases the pressure for separating parents to learn ways to reduce conflict in their interactions with each other.

If you are a separating parent who learns your child is bullying at school, here are some specific tips to help you remedy the situation:
  • If your separation includes high levels of conflict with the other parent, find ways to reduce the conflict.
  • Help your child learn productive ways to express anger.
  • Clarify that even though the family is going through a lot of changes, you will not tolerate bullying or mean-spirited behavior of any kind. Believe it or not, children of all ages find security in clearly set limits.
  • Stay actively involved in your child's school activities.
  • Make your child a priority during the separation.

On the other end of the spectrum, any child who is feeling anxious or vulnerable because of changing family circumstances can be a potential target for bullying. Bullies identify the most vulnerable and insecure kids in their peer group to pick on. Children who are upset or withdrawn because their parents have separated -- especially if they've had to move and change communities or schools -- are quickly identified by bullies as easy marks.

It is the responsibility of the parent to inform teachers if their child is struggling with the separation so that the educators can watch out for a youngster who is feeling powerless. If you are a separating parent who thinks your child might be vulnerable to bullying at school, here are some specific tips for you:
  • The school is your ally. Communicate accurately and openly with the school about the family changes and how they are affecting your child.
  • Develop a safety plan with your child so they can feel protected and safe in the event they are picked on; coach your child through safe alternative behaviors.
  • Recognize that bullying takes many forms in addition to incidents at school -- texting, social media and hazing are examples. Stay aware and informed of your child's interactions with his or her peers.
  • Make your child a priority during the separation.

Remember parents, it is your job to help your children learn how to deal with difficulties in life. During separation, that responsibility can become more complicated, but a well-informed, proactive parent can help their child feel safe every day.