BY GRETCHEN MARTINS
At the moment, I know ‘cyberbullying’ seems to be something everyone is talking about. You can’t turn on the news most days without hearing a completely heartbreaking story, or people saying something needs to be done to stop cyberbullying before another family loses a child. Having worked professionally in cybersafety and cyberbullying education for a decade, I thought I was doing something.
It wasn’t until I had my first child a few years ago, that everything changed. She could swipe into my phone to watch cartoons on Youtube by the time she was about 15 months old. And having my cybersafety background I thought I was prepared and cautious, ready to help her make the most of the online world and help to protect her from everything bad.
But it doesn’t work that way, does it? I could never protect someone else’s child as well as their parents could, but I’ve found that the majority of parents are often under-prepared to deal with cyberbullying, especially during what might be a highly-emotional time for them and their child. It can get really complicated trying to deal with your own emotions, help support your child with their despair, whilst also being angry, scared and just bloody exhausted trying to figure out how to make things better.
When parents come to me for advice about how to manage cyberbullying I often start with the most practical, real-life steps that they can take to make an immediate positive difference in their child’s life, but also begin to build trust, open up lines of communication and build positive resilience all at the same time.
1. Manage your own emotions
Firstly, if you need to, step away for a minute or two and handle your own emotions. Obviously only do this if your child isn’t in immediate physical danger. If you feel like leaving them for 5 mins would worry you, trust your instinct and stay with them.
If your child has been cyberbullied and has come to you for help, it’s important to recognise that this may have been extremely difficult for them to do. They may have done something they regret, or are embarrassed about, so coming to you might be their last resort for help. If you are feeling angry or frustrated at your child, take some time to cool down, and step into their shoes so you can have a heartfelt conversation with them and be helpful. They’re probably scared and sad so you blowing up at them, or criticising is not going to make things better.
It’s also important to remember that in these first few seconds, you are setting an example for how your child might handle difficult situations like this in the future. Attacking the bully, retaliating, or becoming abusive towards the person who has hurt your child is only going to make the matter worse.
2. Comfort your child
It sounds like an obvious thing to do, but regardless of the situation, or if they have also done something wrong, show your child that they have your unconditional support and love. You don’t need to even talk that much if you’re unsure of what to say. Just hold them, sit with them, let them talk. Giving the situation some space and being able to provide emotional support can significantly improve your child’s state of mind in that moment, and provide the reassurance and relief that you have their back. This is what builds trust. Also, if you feel like your child is over-reacting to a situation, now is not the time to raise that with them. Now is the time to listen. If they’re hurting, they’re hurting, so regardless of whether or not you agree with it, you can support them through what is a tough time for them.
3. Look over your options
Think about what options are available to help resolve whatever issues you can to emotionally or physically relieve your child. We go through some exact actions in our Cyberbullying Management for Parents Course and how to physically implement safety controls, but this might include removing and recording the bullying content, reporting the bullying or engaging your child in something they enjoy to help take their mind off the immediate issue.
4. Respond to the situation
If you can, help guide your child in their decision making rather than telling them what to do. Wherever possible, try to empower your child, and help them to make wise decisions for themselves to start rebuilding their confidence. If you feel they may be struggling to open up to you, you might consider connecting them with other trusted adults or with professional support.
By understanding how to manage cyberbullying properly, rather than perpetuating online bullying or running away from a problem, it shows our children that no matter what life throws at us, even if it’s really terrible and hurtful, it’s our reaction and how we handle things that will determine our own happiness. Show them that even though people might be able to hurt you or bring you down for a while, we can bounce back, and take back control because we know ourselves better than they do. This builds gentle and positive resilience for our children and shows them that no one can take away our ability to live freely. Our resilience-building techniques in the Cyberbullying Management for Parents course is my favourite part of the whole course because it extends past just cyberbullying…they’re tools for life!
By all means, put protections in place so your kids don’t continue to be attacked, and report issues to show bullies that there are consequences for their actions. But running away from the problem and not managing it properly will just mean that when your child gets back online, the issue will likely still be there, and they still won’t have the protections in place or have learnt any healthy coping mechanisms.
Online bullying is heartbreaking and stressful, but in the end, we as families are the ones who have control. Show your kids they aren’t helpless victims, and there are better ways to deal with bullies than becoming one themselves.
Gretchen Martins is the founder of The Social Set School after working for over 15 years in youth media and communications. Gretchen specialised in managing youth media for public, private and not-for-profit sectors at an executive level, before establishing The Social Set, which has continued as a successful social media, online safety and marketing consulting business for a number of years. During her time with the Australian Government, Gretchen designed and implemented internationally-acclaimed cybersafety education programs for children, parents and the education sector. Gretchen is married and is a mum of two cheeky young daughters, who happily balance their own time online, with epic cubby-house builds in the lounge room and filling their hair/mouths/bums with sand at the beach.