Bullying is no longer accepted as a fact of life but seen for the problem that it is for the bully and his or her target. About 20 percent of U.S. students have bullied or been the victim of bullying more than occasionally. There are concrete ways that parents can help children of grade school age that either are being bullied or who seem to their parents to be likely targets of bullies.
Talk about bullying
Parents should discuss bullying with their child, even before it happens. Parents’ willingness to talk about the underbelly of children's social world will show their child that they understand these realities and can comfortably discuss them if he/she turns to them for help.
Parents can start by explaining what bullying looks like, using examples and anecdotes. The most common bullying activities are shoving, kicking, pushing, name calling/teasing, excluding targeted children from activities or groups, and using others to carry out misdeeds against someone.
Parents can explain why children bully. The main reasons that grade-school children bully is to be accepted by a group, to feel strong, or to make bad feelings about themselves go away. Bullying can sometimes accomplish these things, at least temporarily, which is why it keeps rearing its ugly head.
Parents can help their child realize that bullies want to be part of a group, feel strong, or cope with painful feelings, but using another person to accomplish these goals is unacceptable. It is possible to help children empathize with the motivations of bullies without excusing or condoning their choices and actions. There are important moral lessons here about the distinction between understanding and condoning.
Build a support network
Although children cannot fully control whether they will be bullied, there are actions they can take that make it less likely they will be targeted. Children who have friends and participate in group activities tend to be bullied less often. Parents can encourage and support their child’s connection and involvement with peers at school to help him/her develop positive, supportive relationships with others.
Tips for handling bullying
Below are some key steps that children can take when they are being bullied:
*Reach out to an adult. A child’s main resource is to ask for help. He/she should decide whether a parent, teacher, counselor or other trusted adult is the best person to approach. Then, it is the adult's job to learn the details from the child, make a plan, and provide him/her with concrete reassurance that something constructive and protective is being done. Parents can explain to their child that telling an adult is not squealing or being a tattletale; it is being a strong and brave boy or girl who is doing the right thing.
*Overcome embarrassment. Parents can help their child understand that all children who are bullied feel embarrassed and ashamed, not to mention hurt and angry. It is helpful to discuss how these feelings can become barriers to reaching out for help, and remind a child about times that they or someone they admire has overcome such feelings.
*Stand up for yourself. In addition to telling an adult after the fact, it is ideal if a child who is being bullied can respond on the spot. Children should be encouraged to stand up against bullying, but only if he/she feels safe doing so. It helps to have friends around during this confrontation, or at least children who are not involved in the bullying.
Parents can remind their child that he/she should not respond physically, but can respond with no-nonsense language such as, "Stuff it," "Cut it out," and "Stop being a big jerk." If these are expressions that a parent finds unacceptable, we recommend that parents consider making an exception and free their child to use such language under emergency situations. Less assertive phrases such as "I don't like that," "That hurt my feelings," and "You are being mean," may seem weak and just fuel more bullying. Parents should prepare their child for the possibility that the other child will respond with something like, "You're the jerk, -----head," at which time a child should just shrug and leave.
*Consider role-playing. Many mild-mannered children have difficulty making a strong response, and role-playing ahead of time can help. Parents can remind their child that walking away is always fine if he/she does not feel safe or comfortable making a response.
Parents have a fine line to walk with regard to helping their child with bullying. It is not a good idea to convey that the world is a place in which danger lurks around every corner. On the other hand, children should be prepared and competent if problems arise. We recommend an active, serious, but low-key approach that conveys parental confidence in their child. As we always emphasize, the golden middle is usually the wise course, and finding that middle ground is the best approach in this situation as well.
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