It’s every parent’s nightmare: sending their child off to school or daycare or sports practice and learning that they’re being bullied. That for some reason or another, they’re being targeted and made to feel badly about themselves by other kids. There are lots of resources for helping kids once the bullying has started, but you don’t often see resources on how to prevent these situations in the first place. Here are our top tips for helping your child avoid a horrible situation from the get-go:
Teach Your Kids to Look Inward for Validation
Children who depend on validation from friends and other outside sources are more vulnerable to a bully’s insults. But children who derive joy and meaning from their own pursuits (their favorite activities, time spent with family) are better able to resist taunts and jeers.
Observe kids in their environment
Make time to watch your children on the school playground or at pick up from practice. Observe whom they’re talking with and what the interaction is like. “If they seem isolated from their peers or if you notice that their behavior is different (e.g. less confident) than when they’re with you, ask them about it,” suggests 19-year-old Aija Mayrock, author of The Survival Guide to Bullying—Written by a Kid, For a Kid. If they purposefully separate themselves from the group or clam up around others, there could be a reason that needs to be uncovered.
Remember, however, not all conflict between children is bona fide bullying. As Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, points out: Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression that results in psychological damage. Sometimes intervention is necessary, argues Bazelon, but sometimes kids need to work things out on their own, so it’s important to know exactly what’s going on before acting.
Ask specific questions
In many situations, asking open-ended questions allows children the choice to share as much or as little information as they’d like. But when it comes to helping kids avoid bullying, more precise is preferable. “Ask them who they sit with at lunch,” says Mayrock, “but also ask them what it’s like when they all sit together. Try to find out what they talk about and if people are nice to each other.” That will give you a better feeling for how your child is faring in social situations. If she reports that kids are being mean to one another or sitting together just so they can tease someone, then you’ll know that involvement might be required.
Get Active Early
If you suspect that your child is in danger of being bullied, create a two-tiered plan of action. Parents’ best bet is to get the school’s administration or the head coach involved and observing what’s going on—and to not let nothing happen. But kids need a strategy, too, especially since bringing both parties together for a talk often backfires and results in escalating the bullying. “Kids need to be their own superheroes,” says Mayrock. “They should take charge where they can by making sure they’re safe in school and not putting themselves in situations they know will trigger the bullying.”
Ultimately, the best way to (try to!) bully-proof your child is to teach them empathy and good behavior from the start. If you model respectful interaction with people, that’s what your children will pick up. And if they see you respectfully standing up for yourself when necessary, they’ll most likely acquire that skill as well. Most importantly, kids need to realize that it’s “never their fault if they’re bullied—and that they don’t have to live with it,” says Mayrock. “It isn’t easy to leave bullying in the past once it’s become part of your normal life, but it is possible.”
Check out our book review on One, a book that will definitely help your child understand bullying.