As a mom, when something hurts my child’s feelings, it tears my heart apart… no matter how small. Being licensed as a Pre-K through 12 school counselor, it used to break my heart when I learned of bullying in my office. We know bullying can cause many devastating effects, so I find it so important to take bullying seriously. All parties involved – the person being bullied and the person who is doing the bullying – need support and can benefit from learning coping skills and opening up about their experience and feelings.
What is bullying?
Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
Bullying can be verbal, physical, social or cyber bullying.
The last thing we want is for any child to be bullied, therefore, preventative measures are very important. It is the best-case scenario to prevent bullying from happening in the first place.
Here are some ways we can help prevent bullying:
Help Your Child Develop Self-Esteem
First, you can see even in the definition of bullying that it involves a power imbalance. Oftentimes bullies target someone they perceive as weak. On the other hand, I have found bullies themselves often bully others because of a lack of confidence or a lack of self-esteem.
We can teach our children to be confident in themselves for who they are. We can help build their self-esteem: It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to be different. And, it’s okay if someone doesn’t want to be our best friend. Let’s face it, as hurtful as it sounds, there will come a time when another person does not care to be our friend. This does not make us any less of a person. I think it is important for our children and teens to recognize this as well.
We are huge readers in our house. Here are a few books which teach self-esteem, confidence and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin:
It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny, by Marilyn Sadler
Thelma the Unicorn, by Aaron Blabey
Being Small (Isn’t So Bad After All), by Lori Orlinsky
I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem, by Jamie Lee Curtis
I Wish That I Had Duck Feet, by Dr. Seuss
Point Out Your Child’s Strengths
We can teach our children to be confident in themselves and their individual qualities by pointing them out. Even when our kids are young, we can catch them doing something good and mention it. As they grow, we can point out their positive qualities as well. I think it is important to not only point out what our kids are great at, but also what they are working hard at. We can compliment when they try, when they are working towards something, or when they don’t give up on something.
Teaching our kids to be kind is invaluable. We can compliment them when we see them do something kind and give compliments which focus on their heart rather than only on their physical attributes. Although we use both types in our home from time to time, I try to continually squeeze in that they are beautiful on the inside. Kindness makes beauty.
Not only can we encourage our kids to be kind; we can encourage them to be inclusive. It is important for kids to understand that they are not required to like everyone but that they are required to be respectful to everyone. Being respectful may even mean including someone even if they aren’t your close friend. I started talking with my children at an early age about looking out for someone who is sitting alone, or playing alone, and I encouraged them to check in with that child.
We can teach kindness by modeling it. We are modeling kindness even when we don’t realize it. For example, have you ever stopped and held the door for someone on the way out of a restaurant? Do you say thank you to the cashier or associate at the store? Our kids pick up on these things.
We talk about empathy quite a bit in our house. Kids can learn by trying to put themselves in other people’s shoes and imagine how they might feel. Talk about events which actually occurred, or tell a story. Then ask, how would you feel if this happened to you? How do you think that person felt? Here’s an example: how might a child feel who didn’t get invited to a birthday party? Books can help teach empathy. One of our favorites is, The Berenstain Bears and The Golden Rule. Another great one is, The Berenstain Bears: Kindness Counts.
Keep Open Communication with Your Child.
Ask them about school. Often times, when asked “how was your day?” children will say, “fine,” “good,” or something along these lines. I like to try to get creative with my kids to get them talking. Here are some ideas which have worked for us:
Play a game of questions.
We like to do this before bed at night. We set a number of questions and ask away. Often the questions end up being would you rather questions, like “would you rather touch a worm, or eat spinach?” Kids get pretty creative! But, I love that I can squeeze in questions like “what was the best (or worst) part of your day today?”
Best, Worst, and Weirdest
My husband actually came across this idea, and we tried it and love it! We usually do this during dinner or before bed at night. We go around and each have to share about the best, the worst, and the weirdest part of our days.
Sometimes just keeping communication open with your child will allow them to open up to you when something is wrong.
What to Do If Your Child Is Being Bullied:
Here are some strategies I used when working with students which can be helpful if you have a child experiencing bullying.
We can talk about these strategies with our children now. If bullying ever takes place, they will have a whole tool kit at their disposal and they will have an idea of what to do. The following strategies can be used alongside reporting the bullying to an administrator, teacher, or to school personnel.
Fake It ‘til You Make It
Have you heard of this phrase? As I mentioned before, bullies tend to bully those who they perceive as weak. Therefore, confidence can be key. Even if a child doesn’t feel confident, they can “Fake it ‘til they make it.” They can keep their head up, shoulders back with good posture, and look up and at others.
Make a Joke and Brush It Off
When an act of teasing occurs, one can make a joke of it and change the subject, or simply brush it off. The less the victim seems to be affected, the more likely the bullying is to stop. For instance, let’s say someone was making fun of my new haircut. I could say, “Yea, I probably shouldn’t have let my baby sister cut it,” laugh and move on. Sometimes, this will be enough to end the comments, stop the conversation, and allow the child to walk away. Another option is to change the subject, or turn and begin talking to another student.
Safety in Numbers
This leads me to my next strategy: Safety in numbers. Encourage your child to walk with a friend. They can even tell the friend what is going on and they can help diffuse a situation if it arises.
Sometimes, avoiding the bully completely is the best answer. The child can attempt to only go near that person if an adult is close. In the hallway, the child can take a different route.
Ask Them to Stop
When bullying occurs, tell the bully to stop loud enough that other students or a teacher will overhear (without yelling). It is also important to make sure not to say anything inappropriate, or both children could end up in trouble.
Name the Behavior
A child can simply name the behavior after it occurs: “That’s bullying. Stop!” Sometimes naming the behavior as bullying can make the bully stop and evaluate what they are doing.
Diffuse the Bullying
For this strategy, you keep saying “So” or “So what” over and over until the conversation ends. For example:
“Your hair looks horrible.”
“That’s the worst haircut ever!”
“So, you look ridiculous.”
… at some point, sometimes the bully will get frustrated and walk away.
This strategy also decreases the likelihood of the bullying to occur again because it portrays confidence. It also takes the power away from the bully.
Respond By Being Kind
Have you ever heard the saying, “Kill them with kindness?” This is another one. Most bullies are bullying because they are having their own issue. Maybe they are being bullied themselves. Maybe they lack confidence. Maybe they are jealous for one reason or another. Responding by being kind might confuse the bully or surprise them into stopping. It also exhibits confidence and can make one less of a target.
You can role-play with your child and practice these strategies. They can even practice these by looking into a mirror. If they practice their responses, they will be more confident when faced with a true issue. For the younger ones, drawing, storytelling, or playing with dolls can be great ways to role play situations.
We can teach along the way as our children grow. We don’t always want to take on the problem and solve it for them, especially if it’s small. Guide them and practice with them as small situations occur. They may be more likely to come to us if they are facing something difficult.
Of course, if your child is showing signs of sadness or if they do not seem like themselves, go talk to someone and get help. Most schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. School personnel can be a huge help. Simply being aware of the situation will allow the school personnel to intervene if an issue occurs.
I always reminded my students, there may be something going on in that student’s life which is causing them to act this way. In order words, I might say, “They are the one with the problem, not you. Just because they say something to you or about you doesn’t make it true.” A lot of times students felt there must be something wrong with them when they were being bullied. Helping them see that they are not the person with the problem helped.
What If My Child Is the Bully?
Many of the tips in the “preventing bullying” section above apply if you find your child is bullying others. Often times, children who are bullying are experiencing some sort of bullying or are lacking confidence themselves. I believe having a conversation with your child and checking in with their feelings is very important. Here are some questions you could ask your child.
When talking with your child about what happened, try to use “what” questions rather than “why” questions. Questions that begin with “why” typically lead to a feeling of being blamed.
For instance, instead of, “Why did you do that?” you could ask, “What happened?” or “What was going through your mind?”
As mentioned earlier, you can help your child use empathy:
- “How do you think she felt when you called her stupid?”
- “Imagine someone said that about you. How would you feel?”
- “If you would feel sad if that was said to you, what made you say it to them?”
- “How did you feel right before you made the hurtful comment?”
(Getting to the bottom of whether they were feeling sad, angry, annoyed, jealous, and so on can be helpful).
Creating a “feeling wheel” can be helpful for the younger ones. Simply draw a circle. Have your child color in the circle, with different colors representing different feelings. This can help get a conversation started about how to appropriately handle our feelings.
Here are some other great questions to ask overtime. You may find at certain times children are more open to talk than others. Try talking to them at different times during the day and see what works best. My children are more likely talk right before they go to sleep at night.
- How do you feel when you are at school?
- Do you like school?
- Tell me about your best friends.
- Has anyone been bugging you?
- Do you ever feel sad at school?
Of course, if your child does not want to open up or talk with you about bullying, setting up an appointment with the school counselor, or an outside counselor can be invaluable. Counselors can help children practice empathy, teach coping skills, and help children identify and work through their feelings in healthy ways.