10/09/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

What Professionals and Parents Can Do When a Child Reports Bullying

I am a licensed child and adolescent therapist and school counselor. By nature, I like to help kids feel better--the sooner, the better for my bleeding heart! When it comes to helping young people cope with bullying, I know that I am not alone in wanting to jump right in and "fix" the problem. And yet, I am guided by Rosalind Wiseman's wise counsel in her book, Queen Bees & Wannabees, who advises do-gooders like me: "Don't just do something, stand there!"

Indeed, true helping does not necessitate rushing in to solve all of a young person's troubles single-handedly, but rather implies a process in which an adult guides a young person to solve problems independently and with dignity. What follows are five steps to guide parents and professionals in responding well when a young person reports an incident of bullying:

1. Maintain Calm
First and foremost, when a young person takes the leap of faith to talk to you about a bullying situation, stay calm. Avoid freaking out. The dynamics they describe may be very run-of-the-mill or they may be entirely appalling, but either way, your role as a helpful adult is to listen well and respond as if the situation is completely manageable. The steadfastness of your response will go a long way in shaping the child's attitude as the two of you begin to move forward toward solutions.

2. Express Sympathy
Next, it is helpful to express sympathy to the child. Something as simple as, "I am sorry this is happening to you" goes a long way in signaling to the young person that the dynamics they have described are not just a "normal" part of growing up and that you feel badly that they have been on the receiving end of cruelty. Plain, simple, honest, and effective.

3. Thank the Child
Thirdly, thank the child for finding the strength to tell you about the incident(s). Acknowledging the courage it takes to overcome fear, embarrassment, and self-doubt is an important affirmation. What's more, only when a child talks about a situation does an adult get the opportunity to help do something about it. This is also something to express gratitude for. An effective message may sound as simple as, "It takes a lot of courage for a kid to talk to an adult about bullying. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me."

4. Encourage Problem-Solving
The final important element when a child has confided a bullying situation is to initiate the empowering process of problem-solving. Because it is helpful to give kids a sense of ownership and control over both problems and solutions, adults should offer encouragement, such as, "You do not have to go through this on your own. Let's work together to come up with realistic strategies for handling this," but let the young person take the lead in coming up with specifics.

That said, it is certain that some young people, brimming with anger and frustration, may come up with ideas that sound neither reasonable nor, well, legal. Other youngsters, accustomed to adults solving their every problem, may express resentment at being challenged to come up with solutions. In either case, the adult's job is to continue to support the child, listen to his ongoing thoughts and feelings, and consistently assure him that you will work together to come up with constructive solutions. Much of a child's frustration in a bullying situation has to do with feelings of helplessness; the adult's role is to assist the child in reclaiming feelings of power and control through this process of listening, supporting, affirming, and thinking through solutions.

5. Follow-Up
Lastly, following up with a child after a conversation about bullying is critical. Just as bullying is not marked by a single act of cruelty, neither can one helpful conversation between an adult and child usually solve the entire problem. The adult should be sure to check-in with the young person consistently after their initial conversation to confirm the child's physical and emotional well-being, convey ongoing support, talk about how identified strategies are working, re-calibrate ideas that were not helpful, and generally affirm the connection that has been established.

Signe Whitson, LSW is an author and national educator on Bullying Prevention. This article includes excerpts from 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools, ©2014, used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton. For more information and workshop inquiries, please visit