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Challenge: Bullying Hurts

'Wait-and-see' isn’t the answer to social cruelty: Why kids need our help to learn basic social survival skills

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A friend of mine can walk into a big gathering and, without a second thought, scout out an available seat, or if no seat appeals, stroll around chatting sociably. I can do that too, today. But still feel my gut clench and my heart start to race as it did when I was a kid, struggling with a learning disability and overwhelmed by social anxiety . That feeling of being left out never goes away — it imprints on your life and sense of self. You never forget that visceral feeling — a complete lack of confidence coupled with raw vulnerability. It’s a recipe for misery.

Many things happened to change all that — I’ll share them shortly.

Today I work as a social skills coach working extensively with kids from across the social skills spectrum — kids who’ve been called bullies or bossy, kids who always seem to be victims, bystander kids who’ve learned to look the other way but feel bad about it. There are the kids who are rude and unthinking who, after years of being miserable, have learned to go on the offense, making some other kid miserable first. The victims feel trapped and helpless. Social cruelty hurts them all.

Every school year starts with high hopes for our children and the growth we envision for them in the year ahead. But for some kids, the school year is filled with dread. Dread for the lunchroom, dread for joining in, dread that someone will turn a cruel laser eye on them and strike with snarky, hurtful comments. Most kids —even those who manage a middle path through the social jungle — dread the moments when social tension or conflict put them on the spot. Certain foundational social skills can help every child feel more confident in any social situation, whether that’s to do a quick read of a situation and the people around them, to self-advocate to manage a sticky situation, or, to step up effectively when they see bullying or hurtful behavior.

All of these problems are fixable. All of these skills are teachable.

When I hear parents discussing “problem kids” or “awkward kids” or “bossy kids”, I tend to hear a common refrain — “wait it out”, “it’ll get better”. But we don’t have to accept that as just the way it is. Neither do they.

Waiting does not make things better, getting children the help they need does. I know because this is the “something” that changed everything for me as a kid. The transformation began when the adults in my life recognized that the “wait and see” approach wasn’t working. All their wishful thinking, repeated lectures and desperate assurances that I’d outgrow it weren’t helping me learn the basic skills I needed to be socially competent and confident. I was lucky to have a mom who never gave up on me but recognized that I needed something more than she could offer. The more turned out to be my seventh-grade teacher, Ms. Tyre, who saw my struggles and was able to teach me specific ways to cope with my disabilities and tune in to my peer group. Among other things, she taught me to pay attention to what the other kids talked about and to think about what I might have in common with them, how to calm myself, how to think before I spoke, and be more confident. Through her, I learned that the world was not going to come to me, I had to make my world myself. She showed me how to engage with that world of kids. I slowly made friends and my confidence grew. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that I wasn’t helpless to help myself — I just needed to learn how, and I needed someone to teach me. She did that, and the next summer when I went to away camp, I discovered that my new skills worked — and as I practiced, I got better at them, too.

When bullying or other social cruelty pushes our buttons as protective parents, it’s tempting to slide into a cycle of vitriol and blame. But that still leaves the kids in the cold — the offenders and the offended. As parents, we’re on this earth to guide our children, to listen and learn from them, teach them the skills to navigate life and show them how it’s done. That’s not helicopter or snowplow parenting; it’s responsible, compassionate parenting to coach your child in the social skills needed to make friends and be socially confident.

As a once left-out-kid who now empowers left-out-kids for a living, I know that the longer we wait, the more experiences of exclusion leave an imprint on our children. The more that kids come to accept meanness as “just the way it is”, whether they are doing it, receiving it, or seeing it, and the more they feel there’s nothing they can do about it, the worse it is for all of them — and all of us.

It’s easy to scold kids for being annoying or clueless, beg them to change, to admonish them to stand up for others and “if you see something say something.” It’s time we coached them in the skills to know how to say and do something.

Start with these evergreen essentials:

Talk about other people’s feelings. Teach your child to understand someone else’s perspective means to understand, to some degree, their motives and reactions. Start by asking “lets step into your friend’s shoes and imagine what she could be feeling?” or “ what do you think your friend feels about what you just said?” That is empathy, but it’s also a skill that helps you to problem solve solutions in social situations.

Prompt your child to read the room. When you enter a space or situation with your child ask him what is going on here? Who is here? What do you notice? Have your child interpret if there an activity or conversation under way? What’s his role? So he can recognize the rules and expectations in a social environment.

Encourage your child to use social problem-solving skills. Brainstorm possible solutions to social conflicts, then try them and fine-tune them through practice. Using open ended questions such as what are your options? what is the situation? What has this person wanted in the past? Help your child learn to work through and understand other people and how to manage her relationships with them.

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