“I told my son, ‘You cannot continue to run from bullies. You have to stand up for yourself if you want them to leave you alone,’” Tianna Onyebuagu testified during her son, Kenneth London’s murder trial in Tennessee.
London, 13, had been fighting with another teenager on the basketball court after an incident of bullying. When he returned home and told his mother, she immediately brought her son back to the basketball court and told the boy to resolve the conflict himself, which he did by picking up a rock, walking to the other teen and hitting him on the head. Within 24 hours the boy was pronounced dead.
There’s been an endemic growth of bullying in our society that has left parents and educators at a loss on how to effectively deal with the onslaught. Like Ms. Onyebaugu, many parents advocate the idea of “standing up for yourself” as a deterrent to bullying, but what exactly does it mean to stand up for yourself, and how can we help bully-proof our children?
First we have to look at what puts a child at risk of being bullied. According to The Pacer Center’s National Center for Bullying Prevention, targets of bullying typically have four traits in common:
- They act vulnerable. When bullied, they become visibly frightened, cry, or do not have an appropriate response. That is just what the child who bullies wants; it becomes an invitation to even more bullying.
- They have few or no friends. Children who are socially isolated make easy marks. The child who bullies knows that no one is likely to come to the target’s aid.
- They are not assertive. To the child who bullies, people who are not assertive seem weak or easily dominated. Targets are also less likely to tell someone about the bullying.
- They have low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence. Children with low self-esteem may feel they deserve the bullying.
While we may not be able to prevent bullying all together, we can in fact empower our children and lessen their chances of becoming victims.
The stakes are high. Children who are routinely victimized exhibit higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts than do non-victims. Statistics highlight the importance of being able to identify at-risk kids and provide interventions. We can no longer think kids will just be kids.
Warning Signs that Your Child is Being Bullied at School
- Doesn’t want to go to school. May begin to skip school or claim illness to stay home.
- Has unexplained bruises.
- Comes home from school with torn and/or dirty clothes.
- Is reluctant to talk about school.
- Experiences a slip in grades.
- Is missing belongings.
- Starts “losing” lunch money.
- Exhibits emotional disturbances such as outbursts, despondency, frequent crying, difficulty sleeping.
Previous research has shown that, without intervention, bullying behavior persists over time: a child who is a bully in kindergarten is often a bully in elementary school, high school and as an adult.
It may show itself in a variety of ugly ways: hitting, taunting, stealing, name-calling, rumor-spreading, cyber-bullying. It can originate with one person or a group; it can be verbal or physical. Once thought of as the province of boys, it’s increasingly clear that girls are bullies too— spreading gossip, rejecting and excluding—and physical bullying by girls is becoming more common.
Bullies have become an everyday part of our kids’ lives and seven out of 10 children are victimized. If we are going to help it is critical that we recognize the signs and know what to do if a child is becoming the victim of a bully.
- Believe your child. Take his complaints seriously. Don’t overreact: listen calmly and encourage him to tell you if it continues. (One study reported 71 percent of incidents go unnoticed by teachers)
- Don’t blame your child and explain he’s not alone. Tell him one out of seven kids is bullied these days.
- Gather facts. Find out who was involved, when and where it happened, how often it happens, and how your child responded to the bully. It will help you determine the problem’s severity.
- Teach bully-proofing skills. Bullies rarely just go away; kids need to learn ways to deal with them and stop their abuse. Coach a few assertive strategies to your child to empower her to handle the bully.
- Build his self-esteem. Find positive outlets to nurture her self-confidence such as a new friend, martial arts, or a team sport.
- Urge him to stay with others. There is greater safety in numbers: bullies usually pick on single kids… hallways and bathrooms are prime bullying spots.
- Tell him to stay calm. This is hard but bullies love power. When a victim looks upset, it fuels the bully even more.
- Don’t tell him to fight back. Experts say it is unwise: your child could be seriously hurt.
- Don’t promise to keep it a secret. Explain you may need to report the bully and get help.
Efforts to stop school bullying have been gathering steam for several years, but there’s still much work to be done. Does your school have a bullying policy and educational program? If you’re not sure, ask. If they don’t, contact your administrators and PTA and campaign for one. The third annual Bullying Prevention Awareness Week is October 5-11. We can start now to make sure our schools are participating.
Programs that are most effective promote an attitude change from the principal to the recess monitors to the parents. They range from presentations to entire schools to discussions with individual students about how to respond when they are bullied or when they see someone bullying another student. As parents we play a critical role in helping to teach children appropriate responses and providing a moral compass.
Positive peer pressure is a critical component of effective intervention. The more students who step up and let a perpetrator know that their behavior is not acceptable, the more difficult it is for a bully to function. Bully-proofing our children includes teaching them to be active participants in building their school community, and not to be onlookers when another classmate is victimized. When other kids walk away and don’t speak up, it may seem like they approve of what’s happening.
- Whom do you sit with at lunchtime?
- How do you feel when you hear kids putting each other down?
- Have you ever gotten a mean e-mail or an insult on IM?
- Do you ever see someone picking on another kid? How? What happens?
- Whom could you get to help a kid who is being bullied? How? What happens to a student who helps or gets help for someone being bullied?
- When you get angry with someone, what do you do? If someone gets mad at you, how does that person act?
Each of the four target traits identified by the Pacer Center grows from a foundation of self-worth, or lack of. Providing an environment in which our children learn to believe in their self worth is essential. Helping our children to realize they have a voice, that they do in fact have power, is the best way to help them stay safe, on the schoolyard and beyond. The best time to start bully-proofing our children is now.
Where do children learn to be assertive, social and self-confident? They learn it from us, their parents. If you have a school-age child who projects vulnerability and low self-esteem, there is no better time for you to access your own behavior, body language and communication styles. Is there physical violence in your home? Is intimidation part of your parenting repertoire? Do you walk with your head held high?
Simply advising our children to tell a teacher or to fight back if he or she experiences bullying does not provide actual tools for the child to effectively deal with a situation, and it doesn’t provide a proactive solution for long term safety. In April, a 12-year-old Brooklyn girl hanged herself in her closet after being repeatedly tormented by schoolyard bullies, including one classmate who cut off her hair. The single commonality authorities identified amongst students who walked into their schools carrying guns and massacred their peers? They had all been victims of bullying.
International speaker and educational consultant, Dr. Michele Borba provides proven tools to help empower children in her new book, Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing.
Borboa explains the best thing to do is to teach our children how to deal with their tormentors and in doing so we’ll show them there are effective ways to resolve conflicts without losing face and without resorting to violence.
1. Listen and gather facts.
The first step is often the hardest for parents: listen to your child’s whole story without interrupting. Your goal is to try to figure out what happened, who was involved, where and when the teasing took place, and why your child was teased. Unfortunately, teasing is a part of growing up, but some kids seem to get more than their fair share of insults. If your child appears to be in no immediate danger, keep listening to find out how she reacts to the bullying. By knowing what reaction didn’t stop the bully, you can offer your child a more effective option.
2. Teach a bully-proofing strategy.
What may work with one child may not with another, so it’s best to discuss a range of options and then choose the one or two your child feels most comfortable with. Here are six of the most successful strategies to help kids defend themselves:
Assert yourself. Teach your child to face the bully by standing tall and using a strong voice. Your child should name the bullying behavior and tell the aggressor to stop: “That’s teasing. Stop it.” or “Stop making fun of me. It’s mean.”
Question the response. Ann Bishop, who teaches violence prevention curriculums, tells her students to respond to an insult with a non-defensive question: “Why would you say that?” or “Why would you want to tell me I am dumb (or fat) and hurt my feelings?”
Use “I want.” Communication experts suggest teaching your child to address the bully beginning with “I want” and say firmly what he wants changed: “I want you to leave me alone.” or “I want you to stop teasing me.”
Agree with the teaser. Consider helping your child create a statement agreeing with her teaser. Teaser: “You’re dumb.” Child: “Yeah, but I’m good at it.” or Teaser: “Hey, four eyes.” Child: “You’re right, my eyesight is poor.”
Ignore it. Bullies love it when their teasing upsets their victims, so help your child find a way to not let his tormentor get to him. A group of fifth graders told me ways they ignore their teasers: “Pretend they’re invisible,” “Walk away without looking at them,” “Quickly look at something else and laugh,” and “Look completely uninterested.”
Make Fun of the Teasing. Fred Frankel, author of Good Friends Are Hard to Find suggests victims answer every tease with a reply, but not tease back. The teasing often stops, Frankel says, because the child lets the tormentor know he’s not going to let the teasing get to him (even if it does). Suppose the teaser says, “You’re stupid.” The child says a rehearsed comeback such as: “Really?” Other comebacks could be: “So?,” “You don’t say,” “And your point is?,” or “Thanks for telling me.”
3. Rehearse the strategy with your child.
Once you choose a technique, rehearse it together so your child is comfortable trying it. The trick is for your child to deliver it assuredly to the bully–and that takes practice. Explain that though he has the right to feel angry, it’s not okay to let it get out of control. Besides, anger just fuels the bully. Try teaching your child the CALM approach to defueling the tormentor.
C – Cool down. When you confront the bully, stay calm and always in control. Don’t let him think he’s getting to you. If you need to calm down, count to twenty slowly inside your head or say to yourself, “Chill out!” And most importantly: tell your child to always get help whenever there is a chance she might be injured.
A – Assert yourself. Try the strategy with the bully just like you practiced.
L – Look at the teaser straight in the eye. Appear confident, hold your head high and stand tall.
M – Mean it! Use a firm, strong voice. Say what you feel, but don’t be insulting, threaten or tease back.
We can’t ask our children to assume all the responsibility for stopping a bully. In some situations adult intervention is the only way to curb a bully’s appetite for power. If you find your school is unresponsive or dismisses your concerns, don’t give up. Quickly climb the chain of command. Assert yourself, call your representatives, call your local media and explain the situation (reporters knocking on the door will quickly get a school administrator’s attention).
If you have a success story to share, tips for kids, or can provide additional resources for parents and educators, leave a comment here or email me and I’ll create a page here at Shout to include your ideas, links, stories and solutions. Let’s help create a community where children are empowered.
Resources for kids
Resources for parents and educators
- Operation Respect
- Stop Bullying Now
- Pacer Center’s National Center for Bullying Prevention
- Gum In My Hair: How to Cope With A Bully. The video, available in school and home versions, can be ordered here