This week is National Bullying Awareness Week. We’ve all heard the stories about bullying and how far things can go. Too many kids now will choose suicide over the relentless tormenting and harassment that can come with bullying behaviour. Being bullied has definitely changed over the years. Now with social media it has evolved into something that can and will follow the victim wherever they go. They get no respite from it anymore. The threats and blackmail (sometimes emotional, sometimes physical) are now twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Before you might have at least felt safe in your own home. Now you don’t because the bullying behaviour follows you there too.
As with all abusive behaviour, the abuser will often use something or some element of the victim’s behaviour or words as an opportunity for manipulation and to make sure they feel like 1. It’s all their fault; and 2. they have no option to get out or get help because, well, it’s all their fault. Knowing that, be aware that you may not know your child is being bullied because they may fear the repercussions of telling you. It often seems silly to an adult but children and teenagers do no and cannot reason the same way adults do. They’re just not there cognitively yet, and while they look like adults, they don’t reason and problem solve like adults. We can’t expect them to. Talking about everything and anything as often as possible will help might make it easier for some kids to come forward, even if they’re not talking about being bullied right then.
Below are some possible suggestions of what parents can do (and maybe a few they should avoid) when trying to figure out how to help your child deal with a bully.
Help your kids learn self-respect. There are two ways parents can help kids learn this. One is by making positive comments regularly to your child. Telling them that they did something well or handled something well or behaved well goes a long way in helping kids learn to respect themselves. The other way is be letting your child achieve things, do things and learn new skills even if (especially if) they appear to fail at it in the beginning. The more things kids learn how to do for and by themselves, even if they’re not good at it from the start, the more self-confidence they will develop. Self-esteem is often earned and we do our kids a disservice when we don’t allow them to do things, especially difficult things, by themselves.
Help your kids learn how to “self-talk”. Teach your kids to give themselves a silent pep talk whenever they are being picked on. Teaching your child how to tell themselves in their heads that they’re good people and the bully is the one with the problem will help your child build a defense against the negative things they are being told.
Teach your child that it’s okay to express feelings, even anger, when done so appropriately. Give them the chance to learn how to stand up for themselves and what they want in healthy ways by letting them negotiate small things at home with you (when they can do it without name calling or temper tantrums). Children who can learn to stand up for themselves at home are more likely to learn how to stand up to a bully outside of the home.
Teach your child how to express themselves clearly and safely. You can do this by teaching your kids how to use “I” statements when they are talking to others. For example, helping your kids re-phrase things so that they say “I feel”, “I want”, “I like”, “I don’t like” instead of “you’re mean”, “you don’t play nice”, “you’re a jerk”. This helps them to express themselves in an assertive manner and without hurting someone else’s feelings.
Help your kids learn when they should be asserting themselves by letting them have practice “runs” at home. Help them to practice telling a bully that they can’t talk to them like that or to say things like “leave me alone” and help them learn when they should say it (at the start of the bullying behaviour). Keep in mind that some bullies become encouraged to continue if they get any response so teach your kids to only say it once, and if it doesn’t work, to try something different next.
Help teach your kids the importance of body language. When practicing learning to be assertive, teach them how to look others in the eye, to hold their bodies straight and tall, and to relax their hands (deep breathing works very well here). Bullies tend to gravitate towards kids who are shy and insecure so the more self-assured your child seems, the less likely they are to be bullied.
Encourage your kids to use humor to deal with the bully. When kids do or say something funny or unexpected it can be a very effective way to diffuse a tense situation and deflect the start of the bullying. Kids don’t always feel very funny when they’re stressed so help them come up with some silly one-liners that they can use when they need them.
Some kids have a tendency to be loners and keep to themselves quite a bit. While this isn’t a bad thing, it can set up some kids to become easy targets for some bullying to happen. It’s a good idea to encourage friendships and provide opportunities for kids to meet new people and make friends. Sometimes kids do better seeking out other children who are alone a lot, instead of trying to fit into a well-established or close-knit group. It’s also easier for most kids to join in with unstructured games such as playing on the monkey bars, rather than trying to join an organized game in progress.
Teach your kids how to keep their cool when they’re stressed. Dealing with bullies is often more successful if the victim doesn’t let the bully see that they’re scared or upset. Anxious kids who show their emotions easily may need some practice and help with this as they learn how to hide their feelings from the bully.
Running away from problems never solves them, but there are times when it’s a good idea to avoid a bully instead of chancing another run-in. Some days kids feel more vulnerable than others and need to know that it’s okay to learn how to trust their own feelings. Let your kids know that it’s okay to avoid the bully sometimes, as long as that’s not all they (or the adults around them) are doing.
Bullying problems often need adults to help solve them. Teach your kids that it’s okay to tell the adults in their lives (parents, teachers, coaches, neighbours etc.) and that if one adult doesn’t seem to listen, to keep talking until someone hears them. They need to know that it is safe to get help, even if they believe they have done something wrong.
And a few what not to do’s…..
- Don’t minimize, rationalize or try to explain away the bully’s behaviour
- Don’t refer to your child as a sissy, or baby or lazy or careless, this lowers their self-confidence making them more likely to be a target.
- Don’t tell your child to fight back.
- Don’t try to fix it for your child, rather help them to learn how to fix the problem themselves through support, resources and whatever else is needed to achieve this goal.