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“Ultimately, the only power to which humans should aspire is that which s/he exercises over her/himself.” – Eli Weisel
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. Helping your 5-year-old child learn to understand and deal with bullying behavior is important for their success in school and in life. More than one in five children (21%) report experiencing bullying at some point.1 Most children (25%) who are bullied are verbally abused such as called names, insults, rumors, or are the subject of jokes. Fewer (5%) are physically attacked, and few (5%) are excluded from activities on purpose. A slightly higher portion of females than male students report being bullied (23% versus 19%).
Ultimately, bullying is about power. An individual who bullies is attempting to gain power by taking it from another. Make no mistake, taking power from another is never fair. Bullying is not a one-time act of meanness. It’s a progressive series of attacks over time that may begin as small insults but grows to more and bigger attempts to gain power over another. Bullying behaviors are typically used by children who are hurting and have a misunderstanding of how to use or gain power.
There is also a new form of bullying affecting your child’s generation — cyberbullying. A 2015 survey of U.S. students found that 24% of middle school students are cyberbullied, and 16% of high school students report cyberbullying.2 Most children who report being cyberbullied (90%) have also experienced bullying in person.3 Because children who are cyberbullied are also likely to be bullied in person, the tips below largely apply to both. However, there are a few specific tips about cyberbullying that are clearly labeled.
It’s important to look for signs of bullying, because your child might not tell you about it. In a study of U.S. students, grades 3-12, less than half told a parent about the fact that they were bullied.4 The reasons a child might not tell a parent vary, including blaming themselves for the bullying, fear of punishment or judgment, and fear that the parent will go after the bully and that might make matters worse for the child.
If your child has repeated tummy aches and doesn’t want to go to school, ask if there are troubles they are avoiding. If your child seems depressed and you are unsure why, spend time hanging out together and just listening. Your demonstration of openness and trust may bring up a subject that might otherwise remain a secret.
The good news is that the research is clear on how to prevent bullying. There is much parents and those in a parenting role can do to create the supportive conditions necessary to help prevent bullying from occurring and to stop it if it does. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to guide you.
Bullying can impact your child and your family in powerful ways. It might be your five-year-old who is repeatedly picked on at school by another child at recess. Or, it might be your seven-year-old who refuses to go to school because of a stomach ache. Or, it could be your ten-year-old who seems to isolate themselves and cry in their room after school but will not talk about the reasons. Learning how to prevent bullying, identify it if it’s happening, and deal with it if it becomes an issue, can help you feel prepared and competent.
Today, in the short term, dealing with bullying behavior can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your child through a painful situation,
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as you work together to care for each other,
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationships, and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions;
- develops competence and self-sufficiency;
- builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure; and
- has a healthy understanding of and relationship with power, boundaries, and other people.
Five Steps for Dealing With Bullying Behavior
This five-step process helps you and your child address bullying behavior. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about bullying behavior by asking open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to bullying behavior. In gaining input, your child
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset might be bullying;
- can think through and problem solve challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- will have greater trust to confide in you if you listen with an open mind; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Engage your child in a conversation to understand your child’s thoughts and feelings. You could ask: “How do the peers around you make you feel? If you feel badly about someone, what’s happening to make you feel that way?”
- Practice actively listening to your child’s thoughts, feelings, and worries. It’s easy to skip to problem solving when it comes to your child’s upset. Because you can have a tendency to project your own worries on your child when they may be concerned with something different altogether, use your best listening skills! The best way to find out whether or not your child is being bullied is by offering a safe space for them to talk about their upset without fearing judgment. You want to create a safe space where your child doesn’t fear further embarrassments (like having you call a friend’s mother) or fear your punishment or disappointment.
- Paraphrase what you heard your child say. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. A conversation might go something like this:
- Child: “James grabbed my ball away last week; yesterday, he pushed me at recess; now, today he threatened to hit me. I got so scared that I ran away.” Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So, I hear that James took your ball away from you, then pushed you another day, and then, today, threatened to hit you.” If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Also, you can seek further clarification if it’s needed. Parent reflecting feeling: “I hear you were scared. Were you also hurt and humiliated in front of others like when he pushed you?”
- Often children do not really understand the difference between bullying and one-time meanness. So, you will likely need to decode what your child tells you if they confide in you. Questions to help you decode what your child is telling you to determine if the behavior is bullying include: Is it a one-time event? (If so, it’s not bullying.) Are there regular or ongoing interactions that are hurting your child? Do they sound like words or actions that are intended to belittle and dominate?
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Learn together to figure out what bullying means. Don’t assume that your child understands what bullying is or what it looks like. Take a little time to learn together about what bullying is and what it is not. Bullying is a progressive series of attacks over time that may begin with a few mean words on the playground but grows to more and bigger attempts to gain power over another through words and actions. Bullying is never fair or right. When talking with your child, you could explain bullying like this: “Bullying is when someone says or does mean or hurtful things as a way to make themselves seem better or stronger than you.” You could provide examples of what bullying looks like. You could say, “An example of bullying is someone calling you hurtful names or threatening to cause you harm by kicking or hitting you. Another example of bullying is someone intentionally trying to get others to not be friends with you.” Once you have talked about what bullying means, you can ask your child questions to consider what they’ve seen and experienced with classmates. “Have you witnessed bullying at school? With who and how?” This is a helpful beginning to a regular dialogue you can have around this important topic.
- Recognizes that there are a range of detrimental effects bullying has on students including impacts on student learning, school safety, student engagement, and the school environment.
- Declares that any form, type, or level of bullying is unacceptable and that every incident needs to be taken seriously by school administrators, school staff (including teachers), students, and students’ families.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Examine your family conditions to prevent bullying. One of the most important ways you can prevent bullying is by being certain you do not – consciously or unconsciously – perpetuate conditions in your own family that can lead to your child acting as a bully toward others. Here are some specific areas of family life to examine to ensure those conditions are not being created.5
- First, become aware of your own language. When speaking about others, do you use language that includes labeling or demeaning words? Do you ever label your own child? You may feel that calling your child a “geek” is innocent enough, but what if the teacher called reporting your child was calling others geeks? Check your own language as you speak and realize that your child is learning from you.
- Here’s a self-test. Ask yourself if your child repeated what you are saying to someone else in public, would you be upset? If the answer is yes, then it’s time to rethink and rephrase what you are saying or try not to say it at all. And, even if a child in your child’s classroom is acting as a bully, do not label that child. You never want a child to become permanently labeled since there is hope that their behaviors can change. Instead, label the behaviors such as, “He is behaving like a bully.”
- Be your child’s advocate. Perhaps you are not aggressive with your child but a relative is. Don’t allow it. Don’t allow uncles, aunts, or grandmothers to criticize your child. There are kind and firm ways you can advocate without hurting others’ feelings. For example, you could remove your child, change the subject, or distract with a game or other plaything. You could also pull the offending adult aside and ask them politely but firmly to stop. If you suspect they are inappropriate with your child when you are not present, make certain they are never left alone with your child so that there are no opportunities for mistreatment.
- Cultivate sibling kindness. Promote and practice sibling kindness by creating chances for siblings to appreciate one another. At dinnertime ask, “What did you notice your sister do today that was kind?” Also, find chances to guide siblings toward cooperation (versus competition). Siblings who are able to work together get regular practice in being collaborative and will translate that practice into their school relationships.
- Learn strategies that promote responsibility instead of resorting to yelling and/or punishment.
- Practice social and emotional skills at home. For example, instead of running to help a neighbor on your own, take your child with you. Let them experience empathy in action. Find ways they can contribute to your home, school, and community. Children who have practice in social and emotional skills do not need to bully. They derive power from their own inner resources — their skills and abilities.
- Model behaviors, and your child will notice and learn!6 Here are some ways that you can deal with your own upset or anger when your child misbehaves so that you can replace your own power-over strategies with empowering ones.
- Create a plan. This is critical so you’ll know exactly what you’ll say, where you’ll go to calm down, and what you’ll do and consider when you are calming down. Then, prepare your family so that they understand your plan, will recognize when they see it, and can learn from it.
- Recognize your anger. This self-awareness can come from a number of cues. Take note of physical symptoms – when they happen. It can cue you into the need to calm down before choosing your next words or actions. Notice the signs, discuss what signs your child notices, and take the following steps.
- Breathe first. Slowing down your breathing serves a critical biological function. It allows those hormones that have surged from your anger to recede. Your body is able to regain its composure. And your brain is able to think beyond fight, flight, or freeze.
- Use strange calm. Switch into slow motion. Use the burst of energy to become extremely slow and intentional about using your body. Breathe and go within to regain your calm. No matter what chaos is happening around you, you can be assured that you will accomplish nothing – except perhaps to make matters more contentious – by reacting in an angry moment.
- Walk outside. The fresh air does help you breathe better, and the natural surroundings are instantly calming.
- Distract yourself. Research has found that distraction really does work to calm rage. Books, television, or movies can help.
- Write. Writing down your angry thoughts (versus ruminating in your head about them) can offer you a chance to re-evaluate your situation. You can reframe it, look at it from another perspective, or search for the silver lining. When you reflect in your writing on what you can learn from the situation, it has a calming effect.
- Teach your child what to say and what to do. If you have already had an open, trusting dialogue about bullying with your child and discovered that they are enduring ongoing harassment, the following are ways to teach your child how to react in those difficult moments.
- CAUTION: If your child has been dangerously threatened with severe harm, do not follow the next steps. Instead, call the school and involve the child’s teacher, the school psychologist, the vice principal — someone at the school level who will take it seriously and pursue the issue immediately. All schools, by law, are supposed to have an anti-bullying policy in which they have a clear procedure for dealing with it. Severe harm can be identified if there is a weapon or threat of a weapon involved, if hate has been voiced (racism, homophobia), serious bodily harm has already occurred or been threatened, sexual abuse or threat of, or illegal acts are involved such as, robbery, destruction of property, or bribery.
- Secure a safety buddy. A child who bullies typically strikes in the same or similar set of places when they have adult-free access to your child. So, decide on who your child can call upon to act as their safety buddy. Invite that buddy over for a playdate and formulate a plan together. Ideas in the plan could include: standing together when the peer approaches or linking arms and walking toward a teacher together.
- Teach your child to be brief, speak up, and walk away to safety. A child who is bullying typically finds a child who they believe to be weaker. A bullied child is typically scared and shaken from the encounters. But, if a bullying child determines that they may not be able to dominate the other anymore, they quickly leave the situation. If your child is being bullied, you want them to feel they can face their attacker, if possible, to end the attacks and move to safety.
- Coach your child on what to say. As the bullying child approaches, your child can say: “Stop! You know you are wrong!” Then, walk to safety whether that’s walking back inside the school building, finding a teacher, or surrounding themself with friends. This assertive statement is done best with a safety buddy at their side but can be done alone. It will require a lot of practice trying it out at home first. And, using this statement will also require you to assure your complete confidence in your child that they can do it. But, it is a tremendously empowering opportunity for your child to take charge of their own problem and tell their attacker to stop.
More than half of bullying situations (57%) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied.7
DO NOT encourage your child to fight back with words or fists. Do not model a verbal attack inadvertently by criticizing the attacker. A hurtful retort (referencing character, calling names) could escalate the conflict and put your child in immediate danger. Hold back on your own comments even if they are flying through your mind, and keep your child safe. If your child is in physical danger, contact school authorities right away. Coaching your child to fight back will be leading them into harm’s way, by the hand of the attacker, AND in getting caught and reprimanded by the school.
In the case of cyberbullying, you can encourage your child/teen to take steps to stop the attacks. Learn together how to block a “friend” or “follower.” If you are unsure, each social media outlet has its own method. Research it and if you cannot figure it out, contact a friend or technical support to figure it out with you.
- Teach your child to be an upstander. Help your child know what to do when they want to get involved. Talk about options when your child witnesses another being picked on. Talk about ideas like: “How could you go over to the child who is being picked on and show you’re a friend? How could you help that child walk away with you? How could you help guide that child to an adult?”
- Tell an adult. If you’ve attempted to coach your child on enlisting a safety buddy and on speaking up to stop the behavior and those have not worked, then it’s time to seek out an adult when the bullying occurs. Coach your child that they don’t have to stand and listen. They need to walk directly to the first caring adult they can find who can intervene and help them handle the situation.
- Partner with your child’s school. Though every school is aware that bullying can pose a significant problem for students, not all schools have plans or adequate support to put preventive strategies in place and deal with abusive behaviors when they occur.
- Ask your child’s teacher or the parent-teacher association about what programs and supports they have in place to prevent bullying and promote social and emotional competence. Then, ask how you can get involved.
Do you recall how hard it was not to stand in agreement when rumors were spread as a child or other children were harshly judged? Your child can walk away with your encouragement that it will truly make a difference. Share how that kind of act is taking leadership. Your child can stop untrue stories from spreading.
If cyberbullying is occurring at school or at home by a classmate, it’s important to let your child’s school know about it. It will give them the chance to take action at school to shut it down.
To learn more about the power of social and emotional learning in schools, check out the following sites:
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
Edutopia (George Lucas Educational Foundation) on Social and Emotional Learning
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
- Use “Show me…” statements. Because a child will be nervous, even scared, when a bully approaches, give your child plenty of opportunities to practice. The more comfortable they are with what they will say, the more likely they are to use that phrase in the moment it’s needed. You could say, “Show me how you would tell someone to stop their mean words.” Think about this as your very own at-home, self-defence class. Act it out. After they say their line, practice what they will do, walk away, or find an adult.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you’ve been practicing what you’ll say and do. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child become emotionally intelligent in managing their feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even the ones you don’t like! When your child is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better? How can we examine ways to take action?”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your child anytime, anywhere, particularly if they are scared or nervous, it’s important to get in plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!6
- Hot Chocolate Breathing. Pretend to hold your hot cup of cocoa in both hands in front of you. Breathe in deeply the aroma of the chocolate. And then blow out to cool it in preparation for drinking. Do this to the count of five to give your child practice. Then, look for chances to practice it regularly.
- Ocean Breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. You might ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies for dealing with bullying behaviors so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together perhaps as a game. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. What are some of the things you can do to assert yourself and get away?”
- Learn about development. Each new age will present different challenges. Being informed about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. You could say, “Seems like you couldn’t get to sleep last night because you were feeling bad about how Julie acted at recess. Tell me more… What about trying out some role plays tonight so that you can go in tomorrow knowing what you can say and do?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You talked with your classmate about what was bothering you — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you tell your classmate to stop saying hurtful things, I will get you a toy at the store” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You shared your feelings and asked your classmate to stop saying hurtful things. Great job!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is trying out some of the steps you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you enlisted a safety buddy at recess today, and Julie left you alone. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Let’s try out a few role plays and then put our worries away and enjoy snuggling up to a good book.” Include hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.