By Scott Cooper, author of Speak Up and Get Along!
One day my eleven-year-old son Jackson walked into our kitchen at the end of a long school day without his usual carefree cheerfulness. He was withdrawn and didn’t want to talk. After some coaxing, my wife finally got to the bottom of things. My son had worn his new red basketball shoes to school and an older boy had come up with his buddies and said, “I’m the only one in this school who has red shoes. If you wear those tomorrow, we’re going to beat you up!”
Fortunately, in this case, school administrators jumped in and took swift disciplinary action. The kid who was bullying was immediately confronted and advised that if it ever happened again he would be out of school. He was told not to talk to my son again about this, and he never did.
Studies conclude that most bullying happens in the school environment, and three-quarters of school-oriented bullying happens on the playground. Harassment (words, looks, and gestures) is the most common form of bullying among boys, and social exclusion and malicious gossip are common forms among girls. About twice as much bullying happens in the elementary grades as in the secondary grades.
We parents can’t be at school to protect our children, so we need to give them the skills to cope with teasing and bullying, and we need to intervene as needed to keep them out of harm’s way. The critical factor that is needed at all levels, when it comes to bullying, is to speak up. The greatest ally of any form of physical or verbal abuse is secrecy and silence.
Here’s more detail on what you can do as a parent to help your child counter bullying:
- Make it very clear to your child what bullying is and that she or he should never put up with it. Bullying includes any mean behavior that won’t stop, including teasing, gossip, put-downs, hitting, pushing, and making threats. Teach your child to speak up to teachers and to you if this happens.
- Take note if your child becomes withdrawn, seems depressed, and doesn’t want to go to school. These may be signs of bullying. Helpful questions to ask might include, “Everything okay at school?” and “Is anybody at school ever mean to other kids?” With the advent of cyberbullying, parents are well advised to monitor their child’s cyber activity and ask questions about any meanness going on there as well.
- Teach, role-play, and practice how to verbally deal with teasing and bullying. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco medical school have found that even timid children can learn to deal effectively with teasers with proper training from adults. I recommend teaching the following core tools to help children nip bullying in the bud:
- Power “I”
The Power I is using a strong, assertive “I statement” to tell others how we feel and what we want. Examples include “Please stop” or a stronger “I want you to knock it off.”
- “Mighty Might”
The Mighty Might is using deflective phrasing, as in “you might be right,” or “maybe.” A child continues to use these statements until the teaser loses interest.
The Shrug is verbally shrugging off the teasing, with a “So what,” or “Who cares?”
Sometimes children feel like they need something more empowering. An assertive Comeback can include: 1) putting the attention back on the teaser, as in “Are you serious?” or “What’s your problem?” Kids should use caution with this approach, though, so as not to sound aggressive; 2) repeatedly saying “No, I’m not” or “No, I don’t” no matter what the teaser says; 3) pretending not to hear the teaser and repeatedly saying “I can’t hear you.”
- Disappearing Act
The Disappearing Act is used when teasing looks like it could get dangerous. Children need to learn to quickly get up and leave the scene, without saying anything, and get to a responsible adult for help.
- Power “I”
- Get involved with your school to make sure it has a reasonable but consistent code of conduct; communicates systematically about rules and consequences for bullying; has good playground supervision; and has programs that foster social connections and group support and protection (“buddy” programs).
- If your school has a particular problem with bullying, you might suggest that it consider the Olweus Whole School Program. This program has seen 30–70 percent reductions in school bullying.
- Assertively intervene when necessary with principals, teachers, and school counselors. In extremely bad situations, get your child into a different school environment—find a new setting with different playmates and associates.
Under federal law, children have the right to attend school without being harassed. How many of us adults would put up with verbal or physical harassment in the workplace without getting help? Our children need to be taught to speak up rather than put up with this kind of behavior. It can be positive for them to try to stop meanness on their own as a first step, but it’s not good for them to ever think that they have to continue to live with it or go it alone. As their parents, we can do much to train our children, protect them, and influence our schools to do the same.
What tools have you taught students to fight teasing and bullying? What has been the most effective?
Scott Cooper is an anti-bullying advocate who conducts workshops on the topic and has served on education and drug boards in Sonoma County, California. He is a past school board president, teacher, coach, and bilingual aide, and is currently a COO in private industry. He is the author of Speak Up and Get Along! and Sticks and Stones: 7 Ways Your Child Can Deal with Teasing, Conflict, and Other Hard Times.
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Free Download: Together We Can Be Bully Free® A Mini-Guide for Parents by Allan L. Beane, Ph.D. Versions for educators and students are also available.