As the start of school draws near, the issue of bullying in schools comes to the forefront of parents minds. Parents of children who are targeted by bullies often feel powerless to help their child. They want to enjoy their time in school and have the best learning environment to help them grow, but bullying can get in the way of this and can have serious consequences for their child over the long term.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have done extensive research on this issue leading up to the ‘Take a Stand’ Bully-proofing and Self-Defense class for youth that we’re hosting. Here are the top 7 ways I’ve come across to help your child deal with bullying.
1. Encourage good social skills. It can be heartbreaking to realize that your child is on the outskirts of a social group. Sometimes it is because they are being singled out for being different, whether it is their clothes, their interests, their ethnic background, their size, an illness or disability, etc. Sometimes it is because they’re having trouble making good friends, making them a more vulnerable target. Actively helping your child develop their social skills can help address this last situation. Help foster positive, friendly behaviour to make them more approachable. Teach them to compliment other children. Encourage them to display open body language like smiling, making good eye contact, while avoiding closed body language (i.e. crossed arms, averted eyes, scowling faces). Teach them to encourage other children and to offer help when needed. Also teach them to be an active listener in conversations with other kids, helping to create open dialogues, rather than just trying to run the show or clamming up. By teaching good social skills, children are more likely to develop strong friendships and less likely to be singled out.
2. Help develop confident body language. Body language communicates a lot on that primal level on which predatory people identify prey (i.e. easy victims). This is just as true for children as it is for adults. Children who display body language that makes them look small and shrinks away from others, like looking away, slouching, fidgeting, shuffle stepping, etc., are unwittingly putting out signals that bullies pick up on. They want an easy target, someone who won’t stand up for themselves or put up any kind of fight, and this type of body language communicates that. Try to encourage your child to keep their head up, shoulders back, take long, confident strides when they walk, making casual eye contact with people around them. It may help to take your child to a public place or to use characters on TV to help them see the differences for themselves.
3. Provide specific praise and encouragement. Children that have lower self-esteem need parental encouragement to help them build their confidence. Ambiguous praise like “You’re a good boy/girl,” or “Good job!” don’t help them see the value of their actions and behaviour to help them develop self-worth. Saying “I can see you’re working hard at soccer practices and it’s paying off because you’re really improving,” is more effective because they can link specific actions to the outcome, and are more likely to believe in themselves as a result. Simultaneously, it’s equally important to avoid hurtful words or deprecating labels when angry or disappointed with your child. Focus on correcting their actions by helping them to understand what they did wrong, rather than saying things like “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why don’t you use your brain?”
4. Give them opportunities to exercise regularly. Regular exercise helps build body confidence. It also releases endorphins that help your child manage stress. Being able to better manage stress will make your child feel more competent, give them mental resilience, and make them feel better about themselves overall. The increased self-confidence makes them a less likely target for bullies. Furthermore, it helps them cope better when they are faced with the stress of a bullying situation. Be sure to let them pick the activities they’re interested in rather than enforcing your own ideas. They’ll be more likely to keep doing it if it’s something they enjoy.
5. Help them develop a social network. Having at least one good friend can help insulate a child and preserve their self-confidence in the face of bullying. Encourage your child to find other children with similar interests and compatible personalities and reach out to them. Support their efforts by giving them opportunities to invite a potential friend over or out to enjoy activities they would both enjoy. If your child is really struggling to make friends at their school, bring them to outside groups or clubs to give them a chance to meet new kids, whether it’s a local youth group, hobby club or special interest group.
6. Build on their special interests. Everyone is happier and more confident when they’re doing something they love. This is just as true for children as it is for adults. If your child has a special interest, whether it’s music, art, drama, computers, or physical activities, encourage that interest as much as possible, as long as they’re enjoying it. As they build their skills, they build confidence. And because it makes them happy, they’ll have a more positive outlook. All of this makes children less likely victims. If they are targeted by a bully for whatever reason, they’ll also be less likely to be affected by their words.
7. Enroll your child in a self-defense class. The goal in this is not to teach your child to act out against a bully, but to teach them how to successfully escape or resist an attack. A good class will not only teach physical defense skills but also teach your child to be more aware and assertive in a potentially threatening situation, as well as verbal de-escalation techniques. It can also help raise your child’s confidence by helping them feel more capable of defending themselves should the need arise. It is, however, very important that you encourage your child to never let themselves be bated into a fight, to only use physical skills when they have no other choice, and if they do use force, to only use as much force as necessarily to get out of the situation.
The common theme with all these ways of helping your child deal with bullying is building their self-esteem. I believe it is by far the most important factor in bully-proofing your child. Most children will be faced with bullying situations at some point (it is believed that as much as 70% of children experience bullying), even if they do have good social skills, a reliable social network, strong special interests, etc. If they have good self-esteem, the emotional resilience they get from it can carry them through any tough times they face, making them stronger more compassionate people as they grow up.
*This blog post drew from the book The Everything Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Bullies, by Deborah Carpenter. This is one option for further reading if interested.