No parent wants their child to be bullied in school. Yet, almost everyone will recall being part of, or witnessing, a bullying incident during their school years. In some ways, bullying can all too easily be accepted by our culture. Even Nelson Muntz, the bully from The Simpsons T.V. show, has a place in our popular culture.
At the root of bullying is a power differential—the bully craves power. In an attempt to gain power, bullies target kids who they think are weak or different from themselves. Whether a single bully or a group, their fear tactics can be physical, emotional or psychological in nature. Not only do the bullied suffer from physical abuse, they also suffer from humiliation.
Think back to the Simpson’s show, and you will recall Nelson Muntz and his henchmen beating up kids, stealing their lunches, and extorting their lunch money. The sound of his “Ha Ha” exemplifies the final humiliation.
While Nelson is the male bully characterized on T.V., bullying behaviour is also used by girls. While boys tend to use more physical aggression when bullying, girls tend to use more relational bullying. For example, girls are more likely to ostracize, humiliate, and use emotional tactics to hurt other kids. Because the bullying employed by girls is more subtle, it is also less likely to be detected by supervising adults.
The cycle of bullying is not only fuelled by the bullies who are directly responsible, but by the bystanders who do nothing to aid the child who is being hurt. Often what makes the experience worse for the bullied is that their peers did nothing to help them– leaving them feeling even more vulnerable than ever.
Unfortunately, you cannot count on your child coming to tell you if they are being bullied. Since children know that adults don’t notice much bullying, and peers do nothing to help them, they may feel helpless to change the situation. They may even think that telling will make the bullying worse.
Parents can, however, look for warning signs that their child may be bullied at school. Some typical signs include: refusal to go to school, abrupt lack of interest in school, taking an unusual route to school, frequently “losing” their lunch money, torn, dishevelled, or missing clothing, and physical injury inconsistent with the child’s explanation.
Once the bullying has become apparent, you can take practical steps to stop it. First, talk with your child and find out as many details about their bullying experience as you can. Let them know that you love them, support them, and will help put a stop to the bullying.
There are a lot of practical things that parents can do to shut down bullying behaviour. For example, you can talk with your child’s teacher, or the lunch monitor, and inform them of the bullying, or ask an older brother or neighbour to walk your child to school. The most important thing parents can do, however, is to teach children about bullying, and coach them on some ways to deal with bullies.
In the early stages, the best way for a child to stop bullying is to prevent them from showing that they are afraid. Crying, running away, or whimpering, will reinforce for bullies that they have been effective in their scare tactics. While this may seem challenging at first, children can be encouraged to fake their feelings of strength before they actually feel them. Sometimes it helps to use imagination to visualize strength. When a bully approaches, a child can be taught to imagine they have an invisible shield around them, or a bully-proof vest that prevents the name calling from hurting them.
Other tips for kids include: ignoring the bully’s talk, telling yourself the bully won’t bother you, staring at the bully without responding, saying something funny or unexpected to take the bully by surprise, talking with the bully in a friendly manner, and telling an adult about the bullying.
When dealing with bullies, the key is to stand tall, speak in an assertive tone of voice, and walk calmly towards an adult that can help. It’s important for children to let the bully know that they are not afraid of them, and won’t put up with the bullying, without being aggressive in return.
The best way to bully-proof your child is to help them develop their self-esteem, confidence, and communication skills. Bullies target kids they think are weak, and having a strong sense of self will be a big deterrent to bullies, as well as provide crucial skills to help children deal with bullying if it happens to them. Moreover, a strong sense of self will help kids to come forward when they witness bullying, rather than letting their friends suffer in silence.
Parenting is full of opportunities to help children develop their esteem. Things you can do every day include:
- really listening to your child and letting her express her feelings,
- treating your child with respect,
- modelling give and take relationships,
- dealing with sibling bullying,
- helping your child cope with peer rejection,
- helping your child build on a talent or skill that will help develop their own sense of identity,
- spending quality time with your child,
- teaching your child about sharing, generosity, turn taking, and problem solving.
*This article, written by Jayne Embree, was published in Island Parent Magazine, in November 2003.