Tackling bullying with problem-solving skills

Image of a concerned looking mother comforting her daughter.

When it comes to bullying, problem-solving skills are really important for your teenager. If a friendship goes sour or your teen is confronted by a nasty comment at lunchtime, the steps they take next can make a huge difference as to whether something blows up or gets blown off.

However, these skills don’t come naturally to young people. Scientific studies show that teenage brains work differently to adults when it comes to solving problems. They’re far more likely to use the amygdala (the emotional brain) than the frontal cortex (the logical, parent-like brain). So there’s every chance it will take time for these techniques to register with them.

Here are a few practical ways you can help your teenager to build their problem-solving skills and develop resilience.

Take on their problems with a calm approach

When you find out that your teen is dealing with a problem to do with bullying, how you respond matters. They’ll learn more from your reaction than from anything you say. If they feel like you’re freaking out about what is going on, they’ll likely do the same or just close up and avoid the problem. A calm response on your part is the best way to get them on their way to solving a problem that’s concerning them.

Break down the problem

When your teenager comes to you with a problem about bullying, show them how to break it down into manageable chunks. Here are simple questions you can teach your child to ask themselves whenever they’re faced with a problem and aren’t sure what to do:

  • What’s the real problem? Sometimes this can mean looking back and finding a root cause, rather than the most recent thing that has happened.

  • What am I unsure about? Perhaps they’re unsure who else might know about the situation or why something has happened the way it has.

  • Where can I find the latest information on where things are at? This might be a text message thread, social media, a friend or directly with the other person involved.

  • Can I ignore the problem? Technically you can always ignore something, but what will happen as a result? Have your teen think about the consequences, good or bad.

  • What will happen if it continues? This might be in today or this week, like ‘I won’t have anybody to sit with at lunchtime’, or might be longer term, like ‘I won’t be able to be friends with this person’.

  • How long do I have before the problem gets worse? This is particularly important to think about because ideally your teenager will problem solve when they are calm and level-headed.

  • Who and what can help me to solve the problem? Thinking about all of your support options can be a great chance for your teenager to realise how many people they DO have around them, even if there’s a problem around bullying with a friend or peer.

The American Psychological Association published an analysis of 150+ bullying studies and found that young people who find it hard to solve problems are at higher risk of being bullied and/or exhibiting bullying behaviour. Teaching your teenager how to break problems down is the first step in really reducing this risk.

Teach your teenager to focus on what they can control and accept what they can’t

Teaching your teenager how to direct their energy towards the things they can change is the foundation of good problem-solving. There is only so much energy they have to use. When it becomes anger or frustration directed at things outside their control, there is no energy for your teenager to take on what they do have the power to change. For instance, they can’t control whether or not somebody says something mean to them, but they can control how they react.

Some tips for helping your teenager do this:

  • Get them to imagine what advice they’d give a friend in the same situation. Would they tell a friend to turn around and add fuel to the fire of somebody taunting them or tell them to go and cool off before talking to the person?

  • Suggest they write down the words that are going through their head ie. ‘Tom sucks for saying that’ or ‘Everybody must think what Tom thinks about me.’ This can help them understand that we are not our thoughts. Reading them back will help them separate themselves and allow them to reflect on where that thought came from.

  • Get them to write down what they think they can control and what they think they can’t on a piece of paper. Talk through what they’ve put where and get them to focus on the ‘can control’ list.

Pause instead of react

To counter this giant spike in cortisol (the stress hormone), the best response is a pause. During those few seconds of inaction, they can ask themselves:

  • Why do I feel this way?

  • What’s another way to see this?

  • Is what happened something I can change?

  • Can I wait until I feel more relaxed before I do anything?

Learning to pause can help build self-respect and reduce regret. Hasty decisions often have heavy consequences. No one is stoked by the after-effects of endless email trails or streams of text messages. Every time they pause instead of react, they’ll get better at handling problems.

Another good rule of thumb is that big conversations shouldn’t play out online. Emails and text messages can be screenshot, edited or shared. When it comes to sorting out problems with others, it’s often best to talk on the phone or face-to-face so things aren’t misunderstood.

What you can do next, together

When something doesn’t work out, your child may start to think they are the problem. They need to remember that a bad outcome doesn’t mean they’re bad. The important thing is that they’re aware of what happened and know what to do differently next time. Dad of 2, Paul, makes sure he uses moments in his own life and things like movies and the news to teach his kids how to handle tough situations.

Problem-solving is all about recovery time. How long it takes your teenager to get back on course is more important than things playing out perfectly. Introducing your teen to this concept can help them to confidently take on new challenges as they approach adulthood.