Suddenly, your son doesn’t want to walk home from school, begging you to pick him up instead. Sweaters and jackets are now forgotten in the classroom by your once ultra-responsible daughter. Nightmares plague your son. Stomachaches bother your daughter. Maybe your child comes home in tears. Or worse, she’s silent as a clam. My daughter, in first grade and just six years old, was the clam – her strength and endurance precociously evident in her reluctance to talk, her desire to take care of it “by myself.” As a parent, your heart breaks, your emotions fly from rage to fear. You watch your child crumble, all the while knowing that unfortunately, getting teased, excluded, and threatened by peers is a sad part of life. So what can parents do?
1. Know bully basics.
While bullying is ever-present, it is never right. Bullying can be physical (hitting, shoving, tripping), verbal (name-calling, intimidation), non-verbal or relational (often by social exclusion or isolation) or cyber (via cell phones or the Internet). Learn to recognize the behaviors and signs: depression, low self-esteem, dropping grades, health problems. Recognize that bullies and victims come in all varieties. Don’t fall prey to preconceived ideas of what a bully looks like. Boys can bully nonverbally, just as girls can bully physically. Nice boys can be mean; sweet girls can be vicious. Remember that adults can bully, too.
2. Take a deep breath.
It’s difficult to help your child when your emotions are running wild, and it’s difficult to contain those emotions when your child is at risk.
Often, your child will just want to feel your love. The playground taunts and slights may blow over, or may not be that alarming. Never ignore them, but holding your child can give her the security, balance, and time to take a deep breath herself, and time to reevaluate the impact of the day’s events. This intimacy with your child also fosters all-important communication, and may erode your child’s resistance to share.
Your child may need some patient coaxing in order to tell the whole story. Chat with your child every day, and not just about school work. Listen carefully, and try to get the facts of the incident. You may find out, like I did, that the bullying has been going on for quite a while. Validate that the bullying behavior is just that by calling it what it is: bullying. Explain that it is never acceptable.
5. Contact the teacher.
Keeping teachers in the loop is incredibly important. They are part of the team that protects your child, and their insight is often invaluable. At the same time, understand that no teacher can catch every interaction. Realize that children can be crafty in their efforts to avoid detection, and that this just intensifies the victim’s agony. Check
Your school’s anti-bullying policy. If they don’t have one, get to work!
6. Teach friendship skills.
Some friendships come quickly; others take time. All take effort. Teach your child, by modeling and by sharing, how to be a good friend and how to look for those same qualities in others. Evaluate your own friendships to see what you are modeling. Model empathy, kindness, thoughtfulness and loyalty. Demonstrate healthy conflict resolution. Help her to define these qualities herself and to define her own boundaries of safe, healthy friendship behaviors. These skills will help her to be resilient as she faces life’s challenges.
7. Teach confidence skills.
Bullies look for reaction. Practice not responding to or engaging with the bully.Ignore the bully and the bully no longer has a target. Without a target, the bully has no means of impressing the henchmen who often accompany him or her. Sometimes humor can work. If your child can laugh at herself first, the bully’s target evaporates. Avoidance, while a great strategy, is often difficult to accomplish. You may want to help your child find ways to separate herself from the bully. Find a different route home, or change an activity if need be. Consider a self-defense class to build your child’s confidence.
My daughter began doing “experiments” with her friends, trying different approaches and reactions to see what worked. That method gave her some control, and a path to follow. The stronger and more self-confident your child appears, the less likely she’ll find herself a victim.
8. Teach safety strategies.
I learned a simple algorithm from my son’s school: No. Go. Tell. No. At first incident, teach your child to say, “No! Stop! That’s bullying.” Go. The second time, repeat the “no” phrase, and then “go” to a more secure place, preferably near the teacher or trusted adult. Tell. The third time, repeat the “no” and “go” sequences, but this time she can “tell” the teacher what she’s done to address the situation (thereby taking ownership of her reactions and building coping skills), and then ask for guidance about what she can do next. Reporting bullying is not tattling. Role-play these strategies, and practice. Obviously, if the bully is violent or presents a physical threat, your child should go directly to her teacher or trusted adult.
9. Teach bystander power!
If she is a bystander to a bullying incident, she needs to know that she can help. Kids that take a stand against bullying behavior can have a significant effect on the situation. She should never put herself in danger, or try to break up a physical fight, but she can have great impact just by yelling, “Stop! You’re bullying!” and then going for help.
10. Seek professional help.
If or when you meet your child’s counselor, make sure you clarify their role with regard to the parameters of their care. If the counselor suggests, or if you are still concerned, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
As for my daughter, now several years older, the road has been rife with potholes, sink-holes, and a even a few cliffs along the way. Our biggest challenge has been helping her believe that bullying is more about the bully than it is about her. She has a choice in her reaction: to let it get her, or to let it go. She can choose to be around a bully, or she can separate herself in a civil way. Her fidelity in relationships is a blessing and a skill, but one that can be used against her if she isn’t aware.
Our hope is that she doesn’t close the door to friendships-gone-bad completely, but leaves just enough space for growth and reconnection. Friendship skills are a lot like reading skills: Everyone acquires them sooner or later. While she learns to protect herself with reasonable boundaries, we also hope that she continually reevaluates those boundaries, and her relationships, to allow for the grace of atonement and forgiveness. And we hope that she now has the strength and skills necessary to stand up to others, and for others, and to never be an impotent bystander. Time will tell.