As with many issues related to growing up, openly talking about bullying before it happens is most helpful for children. Teach your child how to recognize and react to bullying, regardless of who is the victim. Also, talk about and model empathy, which is being sensitive to and understanding how other people feel. This can help prevent your child from becoming involved in bullying others.
Children on both sides of bullying incidents need help. Adults must first recognize that bullying should not be ignored. This includes the form of bullying that makes others feel excluded and shunned. No bullying behaviors should be considered a normal part of growing up.
Bullying is abusive behavior. If you witness bullying, get involved and speak up. Make it clear that you will not tolerate it. Ideally, build an alliance with a bullying child's parents first. If you confront the bully on behalf of your child without his or her parents around, you risk putting the child on the defensive. Also, children who bully often are skilled in turning their parents against you. Don't give them the chance to come up with a different version of the real story. And remember that parents may be the role models for a child's bullying behavior.
If you think your child is bullying others
Aggressive behavior often starts early in a child's life. Although it is normal for young children to hit, fight, and argue with each other, most will learn to control these impulses. You can help your child understand that his or her words and actions affect other people. You play an important role in making your child aware of others' feelings.
Your child may be bullying another if he or she:
- Comes home from school with extra money or "new" toys, books, or clothes.
- Is cruel or mean when talking about other children.
- Excludes other children from activities.
If you see any of this behavior, take action. Discuss the situation with your child as soon as possible before the behavior becomes routine. Ask questions to find out what is going on in your child's life. It may be that your child is being bullied and is dealing with it by targeting other children. Or your child may not yet know the importance of understanding the feelings of others (empathy).
You can help your child by setting rules, supervising activities, and leading by example. Control your anger, and show sensitivity and respect for others. If a child bullies, do not punish him or her with physical force (corporal punishment), such as spanking. Physical punishment only strengthens the belief that people can get what they want through aggression.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that parents of children who bully seek help from their child's teacher, principal, school counselor, pediatrician, or family doctor. These professionals can help evaluate your child's behavior and make a referral to a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a licensed counselor who can work with your child.
If you think your child is being bullied
Many children are too embarrassed or are afraid to tell an adult about bullying. They may think that involving an adult will only make the problem worse. Help prepare children by teaching them socialization skills, modeling friendly behavior, and telling them that you will always be there for them. Mention that if something bothers them, they can also talk with a school counselor.
Be familiar with signs of bullying, such as frequent headaches, stomachaches, or not wanting to go to school. Also, ask your child questions, such as whom he or she eats with at lunch or plays with at recess. If you sense something is wrong, trust your instincts.
There are many ways you can help your child deal with bullying.
- Talk about the situation. Although often reluctant at first, many children who are bullied will open up if they are in the right environment. A good place to start these discussions is in the car or other place where you have little eye-to-eye contact. Listen calmly and thoughtfully. Don't promise that you won't tell anyone. Rather, admit that you may need to become involved but you will do your very best not to make problems worse.
- Practice role-playing at home. Encourage your child to react calmly and confidently to taunting. Help your child understand that responding with physical aggression or insults usually will make the problem worse. For example, have your child practice saying "Leave me alone" and then walking away.
- Teach your child behaviors that show confidence rather than shyness and vulnerability. Children can learn to look people in the eye and speak up when they talk. Assure your child that confident behavior can be learned. Help build your child's self-esteem by suggesting that he or she meet others through different activities. Having friends and interests can boost a child's confidence and make him or her less likely to be bullied.
- Encourage your child to think about the qualities that make a good friend.
- Suggest that your child join activities that are supervised by an adult. Bullying is less likely to occur near adults.