Empowering your child against bullying
By Esther Marie Pérez Prado, School Psychologist
As parents, we worry about our child being bullied. We want to know how to prevent such a thing from happening. More importantly, we want to empower our child against it. However, before we can help our child we need to understand what bullying is, and what it is not.
So what exactly is bullying? Dr. Dan Olweus , best known for the most researched and widely adopted bullying prevention program in the world, defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power that most often, is repeated over time.” The StopBullying.gov campaign further clarifies that bullying is aggressive behavior in which a child or teen uses a real or perceived power imbalance, such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity, to control or harm other kids. Moreover, Dr. Laura Markham, pinpoints: “essentially, bullying is an abuse of power.”
What is not bullying? There are many other varieties of aggressive behavior that don’t match the definition of bullying. For example, it is not bullying when two kids with no perceived power imbalance fight, have an argument, or disagree. It is not bullying when young children are aggressive and act out when they are angry or don’t get what they want. These behaviors could be very serious and also require attention, but they need to be managed with different prevention and response strategies (StopBullying.org).
As Dr. Markham states, young people bully because it gives them power. She adds that we all need to feel powerful in our lives and if we do not have access to power in healthy ways, it can be hard to resist getting it in unhealthy ways.
For this reason, our children will likely encounter in their paths some other children that use power in an unhealthy and hurtful way. Our goal is then to support our children in developing the awareness and skills needed to stand up to bullying behavior.
Dr. Markham recommends the following ways to empower your child to stand up to bullying behavior and to keep him or her from becoming a bully:
- Model compassionate, respectful relationships from the time your child is small.
The most effective way to keep children from being bullied, and from becoming bullies, is to make sure they grow up in loving, respectful relationships, rather than relationships that use power or force to control them. Children learn both sides of every relationship, and they can act either one.
- Stay connected to your child through thick and thin.
Lonely kids are more likely to be bullied. And kids are often ashamed that they’re being bullied, so they worry about telling their parents. So prioritize your relationship with your child, and keep those lines of communication open, no matter what.
- Model confident behavior with other people.
Experiment with finding ways to assert your own needs or rights while maintaining respect for the other person.
- Directly teach your child respectful self-assertion.
Kids need to know they can get their needs met while being respectful of other people. Give them words to stick up for themselves early on:
“It’s my turn now.”
“Hey, stop that.”
“Hands off my body.”
“It’s not okay to hurt.”
“I don’t like being called that. I want you to call me by my name.”
- Teach your child basic social skills.
Unfortunately, bullies prey on kids whom they perceive to be vulnerable. If you have a child who has social-skill challenges, make it a priority to support your child to make him less attractive to bullies. Make games out of social skills, and practice at home. Role-play with your child how to join a game at the playground, introduce himself to another child at a party, or initiate a playdate. Kids who are successful in joining groups of kids usually observe first, and then find a way to fit into the group, rather than just barging in.
Sometimes kids want peer acceptance so much that they continue to hang around a group of peers even when one of the group leaders begins to mistreat them. If you suspect your child might be vulnerable, listen to what he says about peer interactions to help him learn to check in with his own inner wisdom, and work to provide healthy relationship opportunities for him.
- Teach your child how the dynamics of bullying work.
Research shows that bullies begin with verbal harassment. How the “victim” responds to the first verbal aggression determines whether the bully continues to target this particular child. If the aggression gives the bully what he’s looking for — a feeling of power from successfully pushing the other child’s buttons — the aggression will generally escalate. It’s imperative to discuss this issue with your child BEFORE he is subject to bullying, so he can stand up for himself successfully when a bully first “tests” him.
- Practice with role-plays so that your child feels comfortable responding to teasing and provocations.
Role-play with your child how he can stand up to a bully. Point out to your child that the bully wants to provoke a response that makes him feel powerful, so showing emotion and fighting back are exactly what the bully feeds off. Explain that while he can’t control the bully, he can always control his own response. So in every interaction, how he responds will either inflame the situation or defuse it. Your child needs to avoid getting “hooked” no matter how mad the bully makes him.
The best strategy is always to maintain one’s own dignity, and to let the “bully” maintain his dignity, in other words, not to attack or demean the other person. To do this, simply say something calm like:
“You know, I’m just going to ignore that comment.”
“I think I have something else to do right now.”
“No thank you.”
Then, just walk away.
Teach your child to count to ten to stay calm, look the bully in the eye, and say one of these things. Practice until your child has a strong, self-assured tone.
- Teach your child that there is no shame in being frightened by a bully, in walking away, or in telling an adult and asking for help.
Bullying situations can escalate, and saving face is less important than being safe.
- Teach kids to intervene to prevent bullying when they see it.
Bullying expert Michele Borba says that when bystanders — kids who are nearby — intervene correctly, studies find they can stop bullying more than half the time and within 10 seconds.
The best interventions:
Partner with the victim and remove him or her from danger – Go stand with the victim physically, turn the victim away from the bully and walk him or her off in the other direction — towards adult help. Say “You look upset” or “I’ve been looking for you” or “The teacher sent me to find you.”
Get help – Bullies love an audience. Get the other kids on your side by waving them over to you, yelling, “We need your help.” Confront the bully: “You’re being mean.” Then walk away: “C’mon, let’s go!”
And of course, if you’re at all worried about safety, shout for a teacher.
- Teach your child basic bully avoidance.
Bullies operate where adults aren’t present, so if your child has been bullied, she should avoid unsupervised hallways, bathrooms, and areas of the playground. Sitting in the front of the school bus, standing in the front of the line, and sitting at a lunch table near the cafeteria chaperones are all good strategies for bully avoidance.
- Don’t hesitate to intervene.
Your job as the parent is to protect your child. That means that in addition to teaching your child to stick up for himself or herself, you may well need to call the teacher or principal. Do not give your child the message that he or she is all alone to handle this. Moreover, do not assume that if there is not physical violence, he or she is not being wounded in a deep way.
Rest assured that at Robinson School we take bullying seriously, after receiving a report of a suspected bullying behavior, we follow our protocol and investigate the situation through the Division Head office and/or Dean of Students office. We also take preventive measures to ensure a safe and healthy school environment that promotes respect, tolerance, civility and acceptance among students.