Empowering your child to deal with bulliesWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Sherri* entered her son's bedroom with a pile of folded jeans, T-shirts and sweaters that almost reached up to her chin. Her eight-year-old son, Matthew, expressed his thanks for the clean laundry, then said, "Mom, I need a belt for my jeans."
Sherri dismissed his request without a second thought. "Your pants fit you just fine, Matt. You don’t need a belt."
A few days later, Matthew again insisted that he needed a belt. When Sherri asked why, Matthew was evasive. Perplexed, Sherri eventually mentioned Matthew’s "belt fixation" to his sister.
"Mom, don’t you know what’s going on?," she responded. "[You Know Who] is chasing Matthew all over the playground at recess and trying to pull his pants down."
With a heavy heart, Sherri realized that the bullying her son had endured in grade one had continued into another school year. It was time to do something about it – but what?
Should kids "turn the other cheek"?
Schoolyard bullying is a complex problem for parents and school authorities alike. For Christian parents who have taught their children to "turn the other cheek," repeated bullying presents a difficult dilemma. Should they encourage their victimized child to abandon the peacemaker approach and fight back?
Before making a decision on that score however, current research suggests that parents should first consider the question, Why was my child targeted by a bully to begin with?
Traits of a bullied child
A significant proportion of bullying incidents are brief and random, with the instigator attacking another child just once or twice, and for no apparent reason. In contrast, children who are frequently bullied tend to share certain characteristics. An often-bullied child will usually demonstrate one or more of the following traits:
- Gives in easily to the aggressor’s demands
- Lacks self-confidence and has low self-esteem
- Is unable to project an air of indifference to verbal abuse
- Is anxious and fearful
- Exhibits an extreme emotional response to the abuse
- Lacks the skills needed to turn the situation around with humour or other verbal strategies
- Has few friends
- Was ineffective in rebuffing a bully in the first encounter, encouraging repeat attacks
This list of characteristics is not intended to imply that these children are in some way responsible for the attacks. No child ever deserves to be bullied, for any reason. What this list of traits does suggest, however, is that these vulnerable children are already at a significant disadvantage in their interactions with a bully. It really is unreasonable, and almost unconscionable, to expect them to be able to solve a serious bullying problem on their own. They will need help.
If your child is being repeatedly bullied, you MUST get involved. You need to ensure that the school authorities take action to stop the abuse.
Bully-proofing your child
When a child is targeted by bullies, child welfare advocates recommend that parents and teachers always step in to help stop the attacks. In addition to intervening in the immediate situation, Drs. Wendy Craig and Debra Pepler – two Canadian psychologists who have studied bullying extensively – stress that parents should work, over the longer term, to help a vulnerable child build social confidence, self-esteem and the skills needed to initiate friendships.1
As you reflect on your child’s strength and weaknesses, here are some questions to help you determine how you might begin bully-proofing your child:
- Does your child need training in how to be appropriately assertive?
- Would your son or daughter benefit from practicing responses that project confidence and calm, instead of escalating emotion?
- Do you need to equip your child with effective verbal responses? Short responses that serve to end a conversation are best – responses such as "That’s your opinion, not mine."
- Does your child interact in ways that are aggravating to his or her peers? How can you help him or her smooth over these "rough edges"?
- Where could your child receive age-appropriate training in conflict resolution?
- What extracurricular activities would allow your child to build on his or her natural talents?
- Where could your son or daughter meet more peers with similar interests?
- Is your family life overshadowed by discord or stress? Could other upsetting circumstances be weakening your child’s emotional resilience? How might you restore a sense of peace and security in your child?
- What areas in the school could become "safe zones" for the time being? Could your child help in the library or clean up the lunch room during recess?
By focusing on these positive aspects of bullying prevention, you’ll help build strengths that will serve your child well not only on the playground, but in many areas of life.
Let’s return now to the question of "turning the other cheek." Should a child be encouraged to physically defend themself against a bully? Many Christian families do opt to enrol their children in martial arts training, but not just to build self-defence skills. Properly taught, a martial arts class will also foster self-confidence, self-control and respect for others. For Christian parents, increased self-assurance should be the goal behind enrolling a child in self-defence training.
It’s important not to suggest to your child – either deliberately or unintentionally – that they can resolve a bullying issue by relying on their combative skills. When push comes to shove and a child defends themself with a double knife-hand strike, a positive outcome to the bully/victim interaction is not guaranteed. In fact, Canadian research on bullying in the classroom suggests that responding to a bully with aggression – primarily verbal aggression in this particular study – typically prolongs the bullying encounter and escalates the intensity of the interaction.2 Remember, too, that most schools will come down hard on any student who retaliates with violence, no matter how they were provoked.
As you work with your child to resolve a bullying situation, remember that this is not your responsibility alone. An effective anti-bullying strategy must go far beyond equipping the victim. Schools need to enforce a clear policy of zero tolerance for bullying. Children who are bullying others need intervention strategies that equip them to manage their emotions. And all children need to be taught – by both parents and teachers – not to be passive bystanders, but to courageously intervene whenever they witness bullying of one child by another.
1. Pepler, D.J. & Craig, W.M. (2007): Binoculars on Bullying: A New Solution to Protect and Connect Children. Voices for Children Report.
2. Mahady-Wilton, M., Craig, W. M., & Pepler, D. J. (2000): "Emotional regulation and display in classroom bullying: Characteristic expressions of affect, coping styles and relevant contextual factors." Social Development, 9, 226-245.
*For privacy reasons, all names have been changed.
Website references do not constitute blanket endorsement or complete agreement by Focus on the Family Canada.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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