Parents should be the first line of defense against bullying. Here's how to keep your children safe.

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

With headline-grabbing tragedies like the death of Phoebe Prince, bullying seems worse than ever—it's no wonder parents feel powerless. While 44 states have bullying statutes, the policies vary wildly in terms of definition, reporting requirements and enforcement, which means you can't rely on schools to police behaviors or be a safe haven, particularly when it comes to cyberbullying and off-school-grounds incidents. That's why parents must lay the groundwork at home by teaching kids to recognize and report bullying, and learn what they can do themselves to take control of the problem before it escalates.

Don't wait until something is wrong to initiate a conversation about bullying, says Allan L. Beane, PhD, CEO of Bully Free Systems in Murray, Kentucky. Keep yourself in the loop by frequently asking questions like "How do kids treat each other at school?" or "What do students do when they see another kid being mean?" "What do you do?" Then casually dig a little deeper. "Is somebody bothering you online?" or "Have you ever read a mean comment on Facebook or received a text that upset you?"

If you sense a problem, tread lightly so your kid doesn't feel embarrassed or like she's being interrogated. Start the conversation when you're running errands, doing chores or in the car. Make it clear that she never has to deal with bullying alone and that telling an adult is not snitching, but rather doing what's right—whether she or someone else is the victim. Encouraging kids to speak up when they see other kids being bullied is one of the most effective ways to stop bullying in its tracks, says Beane.

Check Online

Cyberbullying in many ways isn't that different from traditional bullying, says Hemanshu (Hemu) Nigam, adviser and co-chair of President Obama's Online Safety and Technology Working Group. "Kids are so connected to their peers through technology that what happens online is real life," says Nigam. But there are key distinctions between the two. In the digital age a kid can't just ditch his problems at school. Through cell phones, computers and social networking sites, the bullying may follow him home to his bedroom, says Nigam. Pay attention to your kid's demeanor after he spends time on the computer or texts his friends. If he seems sad or upset, ask him what's up.

Take Action

If your tween or teen says she can handle the bullying on her own, offer to wait a day or two before intervening, to see if the issue resolves itself. Make clear that it's out of concern for her well-being—not because you want to "fix things" for her. Regardless, take these steps.

  • Log all incidents and take photos of any injuries. If there is cyberbullying, create a screen grab (a saved image of what's on the computer screen)—or ask your teen to do it for you. With conventional bullying there is often no "proof," but cyberbullying leaves behind evidence.
  • Consider talking to the bully's parents. Chances are, they have no idea what's going on. But instead of launching into a tirade about their kid's behavior, which just creates conflict, say something like "I don't know if you're aware of this, but my child feels your kid is being mean to him."
  • Contact other adults who are responsible for your kid's safety. Ask teachers or the school counselor—without your child's knowledge if need be—to keep an eye on her. Call the principal to inform him of the problem and request a copy of the school district's anti-bullying policy. The next step would be to go to the superintendent's office.
  • If the situation escalates, contact the police. While they usually won't get involved unless a physical threat has been made or there's actually been an assault, they can assist you with filing a restraining or anti-harassment order.
  • If school officials or the police do not follow state laws, take legal action. (Check for your state's bullying law.)

Warning Signs

By themselves, these problems may just be typical teen moodiness; several of them together could indicate your child is dealing with a bully.

  • Less self-confidence
  • Irritability, anxiety or depression
  • Drop in grades or difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches or stomachaches as a way to avoid school
  • Sleep issues—either can't sleep or sleeps too much
  • Sudden lack of interest in school events or social activities
  • Changes route to school or doesn't want to ride the bus
  • Missing class—especially the same one
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Damaged items like books or clothes, or money is "lost"
  • Severe upset or tension on Sunday nights

Take our quiz to determine if your kid may be a bullying victim

Coping Strategies

While the problem is being resolved, help keep your kid out of harm's way by arming him with these tips from Allan Beane of Bully Free Systems, author of Protect Your Child from Bullying: Expert Advice to Help You Recognize, Prevent and Stop Bullying Before Your Child Gets Hurt (Jossey-Bass).

  • Do try to avoid the bully. If that's not possible, hang out in places where there is adult supervision. (In the case of cyberbullying, use privacy preferences to block e-mails.)
  • Do stay calm so the bully doesn't know he has upset you.
  • Do try to hang out in groups of people and focus on your supportive, positive friendships.
  • Don't reward the bully with tears.
  • Don't retaliate or fight back; it could cause the abuse to escalate.
  • Don't respond to a bully's messages online. Ignore them.

Is Your Kid a Bully?

While you may not know whether your child is harassing others, there are some personality traits to be on the lookout for:

  • Impulsive and manipulative. Enjoys feeling powerful and domineering.
  • Intolerant and easily frustrated when he loses or feels "disrespected."
  • Misinterprets innocent acts as hostile and uses them as excuses to attack.
  • Seems to get satisfaction from others' hurt, fear, or pain. Little empathy or compassion for others.

If you suspect your child has been acting inappropriately, try to find out what may have triggered his behavior. Ask, "Is there something going on in your life that is making you be mean toward other kids?" Many times bullies are being mistreated themselves. Still, that's no excuse—and counseling may be required.

Momster Poll

If your kid has been a victim of bullying, was she picked on:

56% Face to face/in person

6% Via the Internet or text messages

16% Both

22% Neither (that I know of)

Does your kids' school have an official written policy that prohibits bullying and specifies consequences?

43% Yes. Everything is spelled out, and kids and parents are held accountable.

39% Yes, technically. But from what I can tell, it's rarely if ever enforced.

18% No. Or at least there's no policy that I've been made aware of.

Originally published in the October 17, 2010, issue of Family Circle magazine.