Just when you expect your child to step off the school bus focused on vocabulary tests and long division, it turns out that what truly dominates his or her mind after a full day of class isn’t rigorous academics, but rather rancorous peer relationships.
In the early years of playdates and park trips, you have the bird’s eye opportunity to observe, monitor, and coach your child through the delicate waters of human interaction. When the school years begin, however, the majority of your child's waking hours are spent beyond your watchful eye.
What happens when harmless spats over sharing toys are replaced by cruel cyber-rumors about liking boys? Will your child know what to do when pint-sized pushes evolve into painful tween shoves? When the simplicity of forming a friendship just by climbing the same jungle gym is replaced by the intricacy of scaling middle-school social ladders, how can you teach your child to stand up to bullies?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bullying occurs when a person or group repeatedly tries to harm someone who is weaker. Bullies victimize others to gain a sense of power and control, carefully choosing targets who are unlikely (or unable) to fight back. Bully behavior occurs in overt forms, such as hitting, name calling, and teasing as well as through relational aggression, a virulent style of bullying most prevalent among girls, in which relationships are manipulated to settle grudges. This more covert style of rumor spreading and social exclusion is bred by the round-the-clock availability of popular social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. Even when the final school bells rings, many young girls deal with relational aggression 24/7.
How can you prepare your child to effectively cope with bullying in all of its forms, at any point in the day? What follows are four simple, but powerful strategies you can teach your child for managing difficult peer relationships:
Step 1: Don’t go it alone!
If a bully’s strategy is to make a victim feel alone and powerless, the best counter-strategy for the victim is to reclaim power by ending the isolation. Encourage your child to tell an adult when he is being bullied and to enlist that adult’s support.
Sometimes kids feel like adults never do anything—so why even bother to tell them? While there are cases when adults fail to acknowledge the seriousness of a situation, it is more often the case that grown-ups are not aware of what is going on. Bullies use relational aggression to inflict their violence in subtle, socially acceptable ways that tend not to register on an adult’s radar. Make sure your child knows that it is his job to create awareness. Be clear in teaching him that telling an adult about bullying is not a mark of cowardice, but rather a bold, powerful move.
If your child fears that the bullying will worsen if he “tattles,” help him to realize that this is exactly what the bully wants him to think! Isolation is a bully’s method of intimidation. In fact, it is only by telling an adult that your child can begin to re-balance the power dynamic. When a bully realizes that he will not be able to keep a victim isolated—that the victim is indeed strong enough to reach out and connect with others—the bully begins to lose power.
Step 2: Don’t wait!
The longer a bully has power over a victim, the stronger the hold becomes. Oftentimes, bullying begins in a relatively mild form—name calling, teasing, or minor physical aggression. After the bully has tested the waters and confirmed that a victim is not going to fight back, the aggression worsens. Name calling becomes public humiliation. Teasing grows into group ostracism. Pushing and shoving escalates to punches and assault.
Teach your child that when he lets bullying behavior go on unchecked, he lets his power slip away steadily. Taking action against the bully—and taking it sooner rather than later—is the best way to gain and retain power.
Step 3: Don’t beat around the bush!
The more a bully thinks he can pick on a victim without a direct response, the more he will do it. That’s why an assertive response is so effective in countering bullying. Assertiveness is the essential middle ground between aggressive comebacks that up the ante for the next go-round, and passive responses that reveal a longing for approval. In the example below, consider which response would be most effective in neutralizing the bully’s power:
Bully: Where’d you get your outfit—the clearance rack?
Response 1: Yeah, my mom made me wear it. I love what you have on, though. You always look so awesome.
Response 2: I got it out of your closet, bitch.
Response 3: Knock it off, Abby.
The first response feeds the bully just what she wants—power! By complimenting Abby after such an obvious put-down, the target hands herself over, saying, “Reject me again, hurt me some more. Whatever you say is OK because I am just so desperate to be liked.”
The second response challenges Abby to escalate her aggression. Snappy, humiliating comebacks invite bullies to keep the conflict going and turn up the heat for the next round.
The third response is assertive, letting Abby know that the victim does not intend to be victimized. It does not seek forgiveness, but does not pose a challenge either. It is simple and unemotional.
Why should you teach your child to use responses that are “unemotional?” Indications that a person can be emotionally impacted signal a bully that he will be able to wield power easily. By encouraging your child to respond without anger or fear, you teach him how to portray confidence. The bully, in turn, detects less potential for wielding control.
Step 4: Don’t mix signals!
When coaching your child in the skills of assertive communication, it is helpful to practice using body language to reinforce words. Use role-play to teach these simple, non-verbal strategies that indicate to a bully that your child means what he says:
- Maintain eye contact
- Keep your voice calm and even
- Stand an appropriate distance from the bully
- Use the bully’s name when speaking to him
Teach your child that emotional non-verbals, such as looking away, raising his voice, or shrinking back are all dead giveaways that the bully has gotten to him.
Bully behavior is everywhere. When parents teach their children the lifelong skills of assertive communication and assure them that timely requests for adult support are a sign of strength, they fortify their kids with the kind of personal power that no bully wants to bully.