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By Angela Bergman
Bullying is, sadly, nothing new. Even though it now gets more attention in school than cursive writing, children and teenagers all too often find themselves the targets of repeated acts of cruelty.
Early theories about bullying suggested the behavior stems from insecurities and while those theories may have been disproved, the issue of bullying – and now cyberbullying – continues to be an increasingly complex problem. Many parents have begun taking the issue much more seriously than they did decades ago.
What Exactly Is Bullying
According to one researcher there are four main types of bullying and several base criteria to determine whether or not a certain action is classified as bullying.
But I don’t want to get that technical. So for the purpose of this article, we’re going to use this working definition of bullying: when one person intentionally makes another person feel bad about themselves in such a way that there is a clear victim and oppressor, aka, the bully. The bullying behavior is not a one time thing. It is repeated. It is meant to hurt – either physically or emotionally. And it happens not only in schools but in the workplace, online, and in the world around us.
And because bullying is not confined only to schools, it’s important to teach our children at a young age how to deal with difficult people in general. Even though they may graduate or move away from someone who made their life miserable, they will undoubtedly encounter people throughout their life who will test their resolve and do things to make their day more challenging.
What Bullying Looked Like When I Was a Kid
Approximately thirty years ago, I found myself an innocent bystander of bullying. I was a shy kid who hated confrontation, so I’m surprised when I look back that I had the courage to intervene the way I did.
I was in fifth grade; a short, quiet kid who didn’t have a lot of friends. My older brother was in seventh grade and he was the same height as I was. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the boys in my brother’s class had always picked on him because of his height, or lack thereof.
One day during recess, I noticed the seventh grade boys standing around my brother who was lying on the ground curled up in the fetal position. Forgetting that this wasn’t my typical reaction, I marched over, grabbed the football that they were taking turns throwing at him as hard as they could, and stood in the football field lecturing those Junior High boys until the recess bell rang. At least that’s how I remember it in my mind.
Things didn’t get much better for my brother in high school. Constant bullying had done a number on what little self-esteem he had. He was withdrawn, reluctant to make friends or try anything new. And I don’t know why, but people continued to pick on him for one thing or another even though I rarely heard him complain.
Back then, we didn’t have anti-bullying lessons in school. I suppose it was considered normal, “just good-natured teasing” back then. But it wasn’t. I’ll never know what stopped my brother from resorting to violence to solve his problem. I know if it had been me, I wouldn’t have wanted to go to school. I would have had my fair share of “sick” days or skipped school altogether.
As much as I want to say that bullying today is just as “harmless” as it was when I was a kid, I can’t. The truth is, kids got hurt back then and it has the potential to hurt children even more today. I know we say we want to live in a world of love and acceptance, but cruel people still exist and they always will. It’s a sad reality.
Part of the problem is that we don’t realize how hurtful our actions can be towards other people. We’ve all claimed our “rights” to freedom of everything and who cares how it affects you, as long as I get what I want. The adult bullies I see today are people who believe that they are always right and everyone else is clearly wrong. The cruel behavior just explodes after that.
Lessons on Bullying Taught in School Today
Today, teachers talk a lot about bullying in school. If children are the victims of bullying or any kind of behavior they find offensive, they are told to first ask the other child to stop – stop hitting, stop making fun of them, just stop.
If the other child doesn’t stop, they are told to involve a teacher or adult. While this plan sounds simple and effective, the truth is that not all children have the confidence to speak up for themselves and they don’t always involve a teacher when bullying continues.
One of my own children has been a victim of bullying throughout his school years. Can you guess why? Because of his height.
After the events that took place during his kindergarten years came to light when he was several years older, I asked him why he hadn’t told the teacher. He told me that it didn’t help. He had told the teacher and nothing changed. The kids still picked on him and eventually he got used to it. He was led to believe that what they said about him was true. He was unworthy of being a “normal kid” with the rest of them because he was short. How had I missed this?!
Let my motherhood-guilt be a lesson to you. When the bullying started in Kindergarten, I wasn’t aware. His behavior at home didn’t immediately change. It took about a year before he started acting out at home, and it took five or six more years after that before the whole story came out.
Even though you may not know about it, your child may be the victim of bullying. It may not be particularly violent and it may not be frequent, but even so, it’s important to prepare your child to deal with difficult people who won’t listen when they are told to stop.
When Your Child Is the Victim
By the time my son was in Junior High, he was able to talk to me about some of the struggles he was dealing with at school. My first instinct was to rush to the teacher and talk to her about it, which I did, but things didn’t change. So I took matters into my own hands. I decided to give my child skills he could use for the rest of his life.
This is what I did to help my child deal with difficult people:
1. Practice Unconditional Love & Acceptance
Obviously you do this already. But realize that if your child is the victim of bullying, their self-esteem is particularly low. It’s your job to let them know you love them just the way they are.
They don’t need to be taller in order for you to love them. They don’t need to be smarter. They don’t need to lose the braces because you know they are an awesome person just the way they are.
Make sure your kids know that they are 100% accepted by you and their worth is not determined by their appearance, performance, or intelligence.
2. Practice Listening
When my son was struggling with bullies in Junior High, I made sure I listened to him. I didn’t always have something useful to say but I let him know that I wanted to hear what had happened to him. I used phrases like, “Ugh, that’s not fair.” “That must have made you so mad.” “I know I would have felt so angry.”
He would tell me what he thought of doing to the bigger boys who teased him. I would nod my head and say, “Even though you were so angry, I’m glad you didn’t resort to physical violence. I’m proud of you.”
3. Practice Your Word Skills
My first instinct to help diffuse most tense situations is to use humor. So I gave my son a bunch of phrases he could use the next time someone bugged him about his height. He wrote down the phrases that worked best for him. We collected quotes on how awesome short people are. I pointed out to him all the advantages of being short.
It seemed to work because, over time, he came home with fewer stories of being teased and tortured. It’s not that it never happened again. It just became more bearable because he was using his wit to throw the bullies off their usual game.
4. Practice People Skills At Home
Of course, bullying can happen anywhere, even in the home. Obviously, a good parent doesn’t intentionally bully their child but our role as parents can be frustrating, and intimidation can seem like an easy way to get kids to do the things they need to do. However, raising kids should never require intimidation or abuse.
Among my five children, there is a natural hierarchy from oldest to youngest. When the kids are home without parental supervision, their roles become more evident. The oldest child is in charge and the younger ones are expected to listen to him. For the most part, it works quite well.
Most of the problems arise when I’m at home, and by problems, I mean arguing, fighting, pinching, and name calling. Usually, I let my kids work it out between themselves because home is the place to practice the people skills I have attempted to teach them. I tell my children that if they can get along with the people in their family, whom they live with all the time, they can get along with almost anyone!
I believe that as parents, we are too quick to intervene in our children’s disputes. That doesn’t mean walking away and letting your kids hurt each other. It means trusting your kids to work things out on their own with the skills you’ve given them.
Bullying Isn’t Harmless
Although bullying is an age old issue, we have learned in the last forty years that it has become a much bigger problem than we first thought. Bullying is not harmless teasing. Bullying is intentional pain inflicted upon someone; someone who is often smaller, weaker, and therefore less likely to do anything to stop the repeated verbal or physical attacks.
Schools are actively addressing bullying but the truth is educating our children on how to handle bullies and difficult people begins at home. It’s our job as parents to give our children first the confidence and then the skills they need to deal with any tormentor they’ll encounter in their lifetime.
Give them the tools and step back and let them practice. Trust them to figure things out.