Bullying is a hot topic in today’s culture. While the overall concept and presence of bullying is not new, there has been a movement of pushback against bullying behavior in schools and in adult culture as well.
The federal government began collecting data on school bullying in 2005 when the prevalence of bullying was around 28 percent. More than one out of every five (20.8%) students report being bullied according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016. Students who experience bullying are at increased risk for poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety and depression—and students who are both targets of bullying and engage in bullying behavior are at greater risk for both mental health and behavior problems than students who only bully or are only bullied (Center for Disease Control, 2017).
Because of this, parents are hyperaware of bullying in schools and quick to jump to their child’s defense when the presence of a potential bully is detected. Teachers are bombarded with emotional calls from parents who are eager to report a bully in the classroom and save their child from emotional distress. Parents hover on the preschool playground at drop-off and pick-up, watching the children play and whispering to one another about a potential “problem child” or “bully.”
These fears can be completely valid—and as a child’s greatest advocate, parent intervention is not only sometimes the best approach, it is often vital in making sure overwhelmed teachers are made aware of a harmful situation happening at school. But before the intervention takes place, the best way for parents to equip their children for social success is to give them the tools to stand up to a bully themselves.
For Parents: Stay Connected and Take Time to Assess the Situation
Before titling another child as a “bully” (either in your own mind or verbally to your child or their teacher) try to gather as much information as you can. How advanced is your own child in their ability to give you a full and complete picture of the situation? Is what happened a case of hurt feelings that got out of hand? Or perhaps a moment of social growth from two children who are developing the ability to communicate effectively when emotions are high?
Especially in early child development, it is not uncommon for children to explore tactics like yelling or being physical to get what they want or express emotions when they don’t have other strategies to do so. While developmentally understandable, this behavior is not excusable and should be actively monitored and addressed by parents or teachers—but “bullying” might not be the appropriate conclusion to jump to.
Be thoughtful about how you report the problems to teachers, what you say to other parents and how you talk to your own child. The term “bully” can be a harmful and untrue label for any child (or adult!) to carry.
For Parents: Understand Bullying
In order to make a proper assessment, take time to truly understand the behavior.
Why do kids bully? There are a number of reasons why seemingly “well-behaved” or otherwise kind children engage in bullying behavior:
- They want to fit in with a group of friends who are picking on one classmate.
- They are getting bullied in another environment and are trying to regain a sense of power by acting aggressively toward others.
- They are seeking attention from teachers, parents or classmates, and haven’t been successful getting it in other ways.
- They are more assertive and inclined to act on impulsive by nature.
- They perceive the behavior of other kids as hostile, even when it is not.
- A lack of understanding of how their behavior is making the victim feel, particularly true of younger kids.
Know true bullying behavior so you can use the term appropriately. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:
- An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
- Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
This can act out through:
- Verbal bullying: saying or writing mean things. Verbal bullying includes:
- Inappropriate sexual comments
- Threatening to cause harm
- Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:
- Leaving someone out on purpose
- Telling other children not to be friends with someone
- Spreading rumors about someone
- Embarrassing someone in public
- Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes:
- Taking or breaking someone’s things
- Making mean or rude hand gestures
For your child: Define Tattling
A bully will often scare their victim into silence by taunting, “Don’t tattle on me.” Talk to your child about what tattling actually means to help them understand what is true, unnecessary tattling: attention-seeking behavior where the child obsessively reports minor incidents and accidents made by other children to teachers, all day long—and what behavior is not ok and always worth “reporting.” Understanding the difference between tattling and reporting will empower your child to have confidence when they need to involve an adult.
For your child: Use Simple, Unemotional Language
Encourage your child to respond to a bully without anger or fear, in order to portray confidence. The bully, in turn, detects less potential for wielding control over them. Give your child clear language to use to ensure the bully understands that their potential victim does not intend to be victimized
Tell your child to use the bully’s name in a confrontation, which is an assertive technique that lets the bully know they are equals.
For your Child: Use Strong Body Language
Follow up the use of simple, unemotional language with assertive and intentional body language.
Encourage your child to make and maintain strong eye contact, a mark of emotionally honest and direct communication. Also, teach your child to maintain an appropriate distance from the bully by standing well within earshot, but not up in the bully’s face with aggression or shrinking back with fear.
For your Child: Practice a script
Give your child simple, key phrases that they know and feel confident repeating when faced with a bully. Some successful phrases include:
- “Cut it out, (bully’s name)—that’s not cool.”
- “Hey, I’m not ok with that, (bully’s name)”
- “That’s not ok, (bully’s name)” *and walk away
By walking away at the end of a short, powerful statement, your child is closing the conversation and not giving the bully too much attention or acknowledgment. Because bullies thrive on attention, they will most likely move on to somewhere else they can find it.
The most important topic surrounding bullying is communication. Communication between you and your child, between your child and their teacher, and between your child and their potential bully. Keep the lines of communication strong and intentional by staying in tune with your child and letting them know that they are not alone or helpless in any social situation that makes them uncomfortable.
You might not always be there to come to their defense, but you can work together to empower them to stand up for themselves and be their own, greatest advocate.