As the start of the school year draws near, many of us feel a familiar feeling of dread -- not about returning to early-morning hours, or homework, or gym class. Instead, we wonder, "Is this the year? Is someone going to pick on him? Is he (gulp) going to bully someone else? Is she going to just stand there while another kid gets picked on?"
As you know if you went to school yourself -- or have ever met children, for that matter -- the answer could be any and all of the above. Kids have always and will always pick on other kids, but schools are becoming increasingly aware that bullying can have harmful consequences and shouldn't get blown off as a normal part of growing up.
That doesn't help much when your kid comes home crying because someone called her a name or laughed at her. But there are ways to help your child handle bullying situations without too much lasting damage to his or her self-esteem.
DO victim-proof your child. Kids who are different in some way tend to be targets, whether they have trouble learning, look goofy, or even are seen as being "stuck up." It's a fine line to walk between not stifling their individuality and making them feel like there's something wrong with them. Help them develop social skills and enough confidence to deflect the bullies. If your child has a learning problem, enlist the school to help you help him. A counselor can teach better social skills. And if your child is kind of funny-looking, remember that everyone spends part of childhood in an "awkward phase." Remind your kids of this if anyone picks on them for their appearance -- and don't forget to say you think they are perfect-looking the way they are!
DON'T mistake normal ebbs and flows of friendship for bullying. Bullying is behavior that is intentional, repetitive, hurtful, and comes from an imbalance of power between two kids or groups of kids. Someone not inviting your child to a birthday party isn't necessarily bullying; someone announcing to the whole class who they invited and didn't invite may be.
DO teach them assertive behavior. Teach your child how to take calming breaths, look the bully in the eye, say, "Stop doing that," and walk away -- or maybe they can turn it around on the bully and laugh, as if their behavior is just too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Bullies expect their victims to just roll over and take it; most won't keep it going if they face resistance.
DON'T tell them to fight back. This is likely to backfire on your child in a big way ... a classic bully move is to goad someone until they lash out, at which point the bully goes running to the nearest authority figure and plays the wounded party. As satisfying as it would be to punch that mean kid right in the nose, it's just going to make things worse and will bring your child down to the bully's level. And, um, this goes for you too, Mom.
DO encourage them to seek help from others. Make sure they know you're proud of them for telling you about it. It takes a lot of courage for a kid to admit he's being victimized. Talk to the teacher, the principal, and/or a school counselor. Most have finally gotten the message to take bullying seriously. It might also help your child to "buddy up" with a friend in the hall, the lunchroom, or the bus; if the bullying has isolated them to the point that they are socially radioactive with their peers, ask an older kid not involved in the drama to keep an eye on them. And stay on school administrators if you're not getting satisfying results.
DON'T tell them to just ignore it. Saying this is like saying to them that you plan to ignore it too. And if your child could ignore the bullies, he would. Bullies want a reaction and will escalate their behavior until they get it.
DO talk to your child about bullying before it starts. Even if your kid never is victimized and never picks on someone, the bystander has an important role to play by letting the bully know that behavior is not okay. Encourage your child to stand up to bullies, even if he doesn't like the kid being victimized. After all, bullies make life harder for everyone.
Most importantly, DO make sure your home is a place where your children can feel loved and accepted for who they are. Encourage them to pursue their passions through after-school activities that can help them meet more like-minded kids, boost their self-esteem, and gain confidence. That's the best way to stop your kid turning into a bully's OR victim.
How do you teach your kid to fight bullies?
Image via Eddie-S/Flickr