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How to combat bullying

Two boys showing friendship, combatting bullying

If we discover that our child has been the subject of bullying, it can bring up some very deep protective instincts and we have to be careful how we deal with them. If we over-react and take action too fast we can actually make it worse and they may well decide not to share things with us at another point for fear that we will wade in and make it worse again.  So what actually is bullying?

The Stopbullying.gov website says: In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.

Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

The current definition acknowledges two modes and four types by which children can be bullied or can bully others. The two modes of bullying include direct (e.g., bullying that occurs in the presence of a targeted child) and indirect (e.g., bullying not directly communicated to a targeted child such as spreading rumors). In addition to these two modes, the four types of bullying include broad categories of physical, verbal, relational (e.g., efforts to harm the reputation or relationships of the targeted child), and damage to property.

How do we help our children to be resilient and how do we get the bullying to stop? There isn't a magic wand but there is a lot we can do.  The child's temperament with often have a lot to do with how susceptible they are to being a target.  However, what is known is that children with strong self-esteem are much less likely to be subjected to bullying whatever their temperament. They are more likely to stand up for themselves, less likely to react to comments and will know how to form healthy friendships. Children with strong self-esteem will encounter disputes with others but they are equipped to resolve problems or to not over-react to situations. So the key is to help build our child's self-esteem in order to avoid or confront any bullying. Seven top tips to build a child's self-esteem:

  1. On a daily basis get them to tell you five things they like about themselves.
  2. Give them an area of responsibility that is a bit of a stretch for their age - for example have younger child help do some cooking and let them use a knife to cut up things like vegetables. With an older child, let them pay a bill at a cafe or go to the counter and buy something at a shop.
  3. Praise in detail the characteristics you want your child to develop - 'when you went to pay at the counter you had to use a loud voice to be get the cashier's attention and you asked her for a receipt. That was very brave and assertive'.  Or 'look at that you are cutting that carrot so carefully. You are being very responsible' or  'When Jamie said you were 'dumb' you told him 'I don't think I am dumb even if you think I am'. That took a lot of courage'  
  4. Read stories or watch a film about other children who have overcome adversity or have stood up for themselves and then have conversations about it. Goodnight Mister Tom is a wonderful film and book.
  5. Acknowledge your child's feelings and don't try to smooth them away with 'never mind' or 'lets talk about something nice'. Their feelings are real and important and the more they feel understood, the more they are likely to be able to rise above the feeling. 
  6. Ask your child if they can think of a solution to the problem. 'When Eduardo says you can't play with him and that you have stupid hair what do you think might be a way of dealing with it?'.  Whatever answer they give, just nod and don't contradict it.  If they can't think of an answer then say 'I have a suggestion'. Give them suggestions about how to avoid over-reacting to the bully. You might need to show them what you mean by doing a role play. Explain that bullies are feeding off a reaction and when you show strength by responding assertively or when you stop reacting, they will usually get bored and give up. 
  7. Don't over react when you hear about bullying and treat your child like a 'poor me' victim. You need to show your child that you have every confidence that they can learn to be resilient and combat the bullying by being strong, learning strategies to walk away, by forging other friendships or getting help or support from their teachers.