Believe it or not, most kids never report getting bullied. Not to their parents and not to their school. So what's a parent to do? Take control of the situation before it gets to be a problem by becoming your child's bully coach!
STEP ONE: Kids don't report getting bullied for lots of reasons but the biggest reason may be the saddest: targets of bullying almost always blame themselves. Parents should bring up the subject of bullying by making it crystal clear that NO ONE deserves to be bullied, no matter how imperfect or flawed they may be. Not even bullies deserve to be bullied.
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One of the best ways to teach your child not to blame themselves is to point out a universal truth: bullies do what they do because it makes them feel good. And anyone who takes pleasure out of being mean to another person deserves our pity. Because taking joy from hurting someone else is as low as you can go as a human being, and anyone who does that must be very, very damaged on the inside.
Casting the bully in the light of someone people should feel sorry for lets a child begin to think of the bully as the one who has a major problem, not them. This realization does two things: first, it helps kids to stop responding in an angry or upset way, which is the kind of reaction bullies thrive on, and secondly, it makes room in your child's brain to start viewing the bullying in a dispassionate, intellectual way. Reaching this stage of the game is literally half the battle.
STEP TWO: Remind your child how important it is to be aware of the power of their "native tongue," regardless of what language they speak. Body language is the only language that's already hard-wired into our brains at birth, and without the ability to gauge another person's words within the context of their body language, their meaning can easily get misinterpreted. That's why kids need to be reminded that what they say isn't anywhere near as important as the way they say it.
When standing up to a bully, appearances count for everything. The statement, "You think you're cool but you're just a bully!" won't deter a bully if the speaker has hunched shoulders, fails to make eye contact, or is using a whiny tone of voice. Bullies can spot the kind of body language that telegraphs, "I'm not feeling sure of myself!" at 500 paces.
On the other hand, a child who stands just a little to close to the bully, with their shoulders squared, and making strong eye contact while saying, "Watch it!" is going to make a much stronger impression on the bully, even though their actual words may not be particularly eloquent.
STEP THREE: When kids come up with their own ideas for deflating bullies, they're not only more likely to remember them, they're more likely to implement them, too. Now that your child understands how important body language is, help them come up with their own snappy comebacks by making a game out of it.
Start by brainstorming together with a "no holds barred" approach. Encourage them to suggest as many responses as they can before you start winnowing down the unsuitable ones. The ones that make the grade are safe to use, aren't terribly hurtful, and are easy to recall. (The truth is that the exact words don't matter nearly as much as the way your child is delivering them.)
If your child has trouble getting started, it's OK to suggest simple responses such as, "So?" When a target just keeps repeating, "So?" while looking bored, it's demoralizing for the bully because now they're the one who's starting to look pretty uncool.
STEP FOUR: Practice role-playing games with your child by taking the role of the target while your child takes the role of the bully. This approach has two advantages: First, kids feel reluctant to take the role of the target when they aren't very good at it yet. And second, the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.
Make sure you let your child know that you're depending on them to point out any mistakes you might make, whether it's forgetting to make eye contact, whining, or slouching. By being the kind of target who makes every mistake in the book, you're affording your child many opportunities for learning how not to respond to a bully.
When your child has "mastered" what not to do, and has a few comebacks of their own for responding to the bully, then you can safely switch roles. Remember: nothing improves a child's hearing like praise! Be generous with complimenting everything your child does right.
STEP FIVE: Sometimes a bullying situation has gone on so long that your child simply doesn't have enough self- confidence to confront the bully without help from an adult. That's why it's an excellent idea to teach your child the 5 W's of reporting bullying: who, what, when, where, and most importantly, witnesses.
When schools can corroborate a student's claims of being bullied by independently and discreetly interviewing bystanders who saw what happened, it's no longer a question of expecting the school to take your child's word against the bully's. Letting the truth come out benefits all concerned: the school's reputation for fairness is enhanced, targets develop more self-confidence, and bullies learn that it's really not cool to bully others.
Bullying is universal. Even worse, bullies don't disappear after their school years, they simply reappear in the workplace. It's like the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
By teaching children how to deal with a bully, we're protecting them for a lifetime.
•Jackie Humans' expertise on the topic of bullying is based on her own experience with being bullied as a child, both at home and at school, her experience with raising a child diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and her work with Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS). She is a well-known speaker and program leader to parents and students, grades K though 12, on subjects such as bully prevention, Internet safety, sexual harassment, date rape and child abuse. Dr. Humans is also a recent graduate of the Workplace Bullying Institute, the only organization in the United States that trains individuals how to present anti-bullying programs for bullying in the workplace. She is the author of "How to ZAP a Bully!" For more information, visit JackieHumans.com.