BY DR. CHRIS LITTON
Your son or daughter comes home after school and tells you that the other kids are “being mean.” You listen in horror as they tell you stories of cruelty and abuse. You may have given your child ideas to ignore the bullying, walk away, report it to a teacher or counselor, but it is not enough: Episodes continue to happen, and your child continues to be hurt. You feel powerless to stop it.
Stories such as these are heard often in the offices of child psychologists, too often. It is common for children to believe nasty comments made toward them by other children, and parents may hear their child reflecting the negative comments. After time, children can begin to show signs of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. They may fear going to school, or to P.E. or recess. Often, the child feels ashamed that they have been singled out and may minimize what is actually happening. They may feel afraid of retaliation by the bully if the abuse is reported, which also can lead them to minimize it or remain silent. (By the time the parent is told, it may well have been going on for a while.) Bullying is serious, and children can carry the memories of being victimized for the rest of their lives.
Boys and girls tend to be bullied in different ways. Boys tend to bully other boys physically, or verbally with threats and insults. Girls tend to bully other girls with insults and by isolating them, i.e., withholding friendships or fun activities. For example, a female bully might throw a party, and purposely not invite her target. Although this seems subtle, it is just as hurtful. Regardless of the method of bullying, the goal is the same. Children bully in order to gain what they perceive as social approval, assert dominance, and raise their own feelings of self-worth. Chronic bullies often suffer from low self-esteem, believing that they must “lower” and humiliate their victims in order to feel good about themselves.
Sometimes bullies will target a child who lacks social skills. We are social animals, and healthy friendships are a basic need. Some kids are so desperate to fill this need that they will begin to behave in ways that their peers (and adults) perceive as immature. Social skills training in an organized setting (i.e., a relationship skills group led by a mental health professional) can be of great help with such children. Involvement with after-school activities in which your child is interested also can help with social skills training, such as Cub or Boy Scouts, sports, youth group, band or choral groups, and the like. Your child’s school counselor can be a helpful resource with bullied kids. Some counselors run social skills groups at schools, where children are able to participate without classmates knowing they have done so.
The single most important benefit of bully-proofing is raising the victim’s feelings of self-worth. Bullies pick targets that they perceive to be weak, and unable to defend themselves. The typical bully is essentially a coward and would avoid targeting a child they fear could stand up for themselves. When a child has high feelings of self-worth, he or she tends to exude this in their daily activities: They walk with their head up, standing tall, and giving eye contact to those that they meet. When working with children that are chronically picked on, one therapist coached them to play “theme music” in their head while they are walking through the hall in school. He tells them to pretend that they are the “best thing that has ever happened to that hallway, and everyone around should be begging to be his or her friend.” He reminds them that the bully has taken away their power, but they can take it back anytime they wish!
It is developmentally appropriate for school-aged children to take popularity very seriously. If they perceive that the other kids “hate” them, they may naturally surmise that something is wrong with them. More often than not, the majority of the grief and abuse a target child endures comes from a small group of bullies. Sometimes it is helpful for the victims to think about what is happening to them in a realistic way.
Teacher involvement is another crucial step. Make it very clear to the teacher and counselor what is happening and ask that the teacher intervene immediately when this behavior occurs. Unfortunately, it is beyond the teacher’s ability to watch children every minute of the day, but most teachers are glad to help. Increasing numbers of schools have established bullying intervention plans, with a series of warnings, interventions, and consequences. Also, attempt to make contact with the bully’s parents. Although their cooperation is not guaranteed, it lets them know that you are aware of the problem, and actively doing something about it.
Sometimes bullying can escalate into assault. Do not be afraid to contact local law enforcement if your child comes home with obvious injuries. If an adult assaults someone and takes their wallet, the adult goes to jail. Just because the bully is under 18, it does not excuse aggressive behavior. Although it is unlikely the bully will be arrested, a five-minute sit in the back of a police cruiser, or at the local police precinct, sends a clear message.
Another good idea would be that boys and girls become involved with martial arts. The martial arts teach many important life lessons and perform wonders on feelings of self-confidence. Martial arts training stresses self-discipline, self-control, self-respect, courtesy, modesty, and perseverance. Most schools strongly emphasize alternative, non-violent ways to self-defense. Studies have shown that children with martial arts training are less likely to fist-fight, and more likely to explore alternative solutions to arguments. It is more important that your child has the best teacher in your area, as opposed to learning the best “style” of martial art. Shop around and ask to sit in on a few classes. The instructor that has the best rapport with his or her students probably is the best teacher for your child. It is very common for the teacher to become a very important person in your child’s life, and you want to make sure this person is teaching your child things that are in line with your personal beliefs.
Bullies are sad children that often grow up to be sad and lonely adults, if they do not receive help, or find their way to positive changes. They live to take power away from other people. Bully-proofing is about empowerment, self-esteem, and perseverance. Bully-proofing takes the power back.