Getting the Better of Bullies
Q: Our son, Matthew, is beginning second grade. He is not well-coordinated or interested in athletics. His interests are varied and wonderful, but in the world of boys he might be seen as "geeky." We are worried that he may be singled out as a target for bullying. Can we do something now?
A: 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 you can help Matthew with this real problem.
Talk about bullying
Discuss bullying with Matthew. Your willingness to talk about the underbelly of children's social world will show Matthew that you understand these realities and can comfortably discuss them if he turns to you for help.
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.
Explain why children bully. The main reason 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.
Help Matthew realize bullies want to be part of a group, feel strong, or cope with painful feelings, but that using another person to accomplish these goals is unacceptable. You can help Matthew empathize with the motivations of bullies without excusing or condoning their choices and actions. There are important moral lessons here.
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. Encourage and support Matthew's connection and involvement with peers at school to help him 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. Matthew's main resource is to ask for help. He 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 Matthew, make a plan, and provide Matthew with concrete reassurance that something constructive and protective is being done. Explain to Matthew that telling an adult is not squealing or being a tattletale; it is being a strong and brave boy who is doing the right thing.
*Overcome embarrassment. Help Matthew understand that all children who are bullied feel embarrassed and ashamed, not to mention hurt and angry. Discuss how these feelings can become barriers to reaching out for help, and remind him about times that he or others he admires have 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. Encourage Matthew to stand up against bullying, but only if he feels safe doing so. It helps to have friends around during this confrontation, or at least children who are not involved in the bullying.
Remind Matthew that he 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 you find unacceptable, consider making an exception and free him 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. Prepare him for the possibility that the other child will respond with something like, "You're the jerk, -----head," at which time Matthew 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. Remind Matthew that walking away is always fine if he does not feel safe or comfortable making a response himself.
You have a fine line to walk. You don't want Matthew to think he is living in a world in which danger lurks around every corner. On the other hand, you want him to feel prepared and competent if problems arise. Take an active, serious, but low-key approach that conveys your confidence in him. As we always emphasize, the golden middle is usually the wise course, and finding the middle ground is the best approach in this situation as well.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents' questions.