For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy

Bullying: What, Why, How, and How Parents and Kids Can Help

by Richard Gallagher, PhD

 

Bullying

 

Being different is a major concern among kids, especially when it comes to behavior. Kids who are involved with activities outside what is considered typical (e.g. boys who dance ballet or girls who want to play football) are often viewed by their peers as “different,” and these views can transition from early questioning to later teasing, bullying, and other harmful social interactions.

There are many factors surrounding bullying and kids’ reactions to bullying. Below are some important considerations:

Personality

It is crucial that parents explain to kids how the activities they participate in, whatever they may be, are valuable. Through this understanding, children will learn both to value themselves and to present their interests to other kids; this builds tolerance. It is also the responsibility of schools to teach kids to be accepting of differences, including differences in personality. Some kids are vocal, active, and tend to take charge, while others are more quiet and observant. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers should foster atmospheres where kids can take turns being in charge so that one “way of being” is not presented as the right way. Kids, like all people, like respect, and it is important to create spaces where all types of kids can develop confidently in ways that fit their various personalities.

Empathy

Children who are more empathic, who are able to understand how another child feels, engage in less teasing and bullying. Situations that foster more empathy are also situations in which less bullying and teasing occur. Bullying occurs more often in groups because group situations diminish any one individual’s responsibility in causing harm to another. Additionally, if kids see fewer aspects of the victim's reactions, they are more likely to continue to engage in bullying behavior; this is most evident in cyberbullying. It is important to teach kids from an early age about the impact their actions may have on others; this will help kids to not only refrain from bullying, but also to stand up to it when it does occur.

Bystanders

One of the most important things to teach kids is that they can play a role in preventing bullying. One technique is to tell kids that instead of being “bystanders” they should strive to be “upstanders.” Don’t watch bullying happen quietly, but rather stand up for other kids. Often times there are many more bystanders than bullies, so if these bystanders say "hey, don't do that, that's not right," then bullying becomes less likely to occur. Teachers can encourage kids to stand up for other kids and themselves by creating dialogue about bullying. Different kinds of assemblies, discussions in class, and posters on the wall can help to point out what kind of behaviors are okay and what kinds are not. Creating an atmosphere that encourages standing up to bullying will not only help kids to help each other, but will also result in less bullying overall.

Dealing with bullying

Some kids do not want to get their parents or teachers involved when bullying occurs because they fear retaliation from their peers. While it is important for kids to learn how to cope with bullying on their own, there are also situations when a teacher or other adult should be involved. Schools should have policies and plans so that kids know what to do when bullying occurs, and so that all kids are aware of specific consequences. Equally important is that parents and schools teach kids what bullying entails so that they are able to recognize it when it occurs. While kids must learn to fend for themselves, at the end of the day it is still the responsibility of teachers, school administrators, and other adults to maintain safety and protect children.

Anticipatory Stress

Kids are sometimes anxious about bullying occurring even when it hasn’t. Often, this occurs because kids are very reactive to information they hear in the news or in adult conversations. When parents talk about anxiety, for example, kids learn that anxiety is a real issue and they worry that it will happen to them. The same is true with bullying. Furthermore, if kids hear about one kid being bullied, they may believe that bullying is more common than it actually is, and that it is inevitable. While it is important that kids understand that these unfortunate circumstances do occur, parents and teachers need to actively help kids develop accurate beliefs about the threats they may face – just because one case of bullying gets a lot of attention in the news does not mean that it is likely to happen to every kid.

Coping skills

Parents and teachers must begin to teach kids skills to cope with bullying from an early age. Whether it is working on not becoming tearful, shifting focus to a kid’s personal strengths, or teaching kids how to stand up for others, these are skills that will serve as protective tools and also decrease the likelihood of later bullying. At the same time, it is important to be sensitive to kids emotions and to monitor how a child is affected by bullying or perceived bullying. Some kids are more bothered by bullies and bullying than others, and it is important to be attuned to the needs and sensitivities of each child.