Safeguard children against bullies

I am worried about my 12-year-old son as he is being bullied at school and does not stand up for himself. I want to help him but feel he needs to learn how to be strong and stand his ground.

Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behaviour in which a child or teenager uses a real or perceived power imbalance, such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity, to control or harm other children. It can include anything from spreading rumours to name-calling to physical aggression. Bullying is an abuse of power.

Unfortunately, you cannot bully-proof your child. There have always been angry or hurt people who act out by hurting others, and your child’s path will sometimes cross with theirs.

You can support your child in developing the awareness and skills to protect himself when necessary, and to seek help when he cannot help himself.

Here are some ways:

Model compassionate and respectful relationships from the time your child is small.

As Alice Miller, author of Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, wrote: “If children have been accustomed from the start to having their world respected, they will have no trouble later in life recognising disrespect directed against them in any form and will rebel against it on their own.”

The most effective way to keep children from being bullied, and from becoming bullies, is to make sure they grow up in loving, respectful relationships, rather than relationships that use power or force to control them. Children learn both sides of every relationship, and they can act either one.

If you spank them, your child will learn that physical violence is the way to respond to interpersonal problems.

Stay connected to your child.

Lonely children are more likely to be bullied. Children are often ashamed that they’re being bullied, so they worry about telling their parents. Parenting is 80% connection – a close relationship with your child – and only 20% guidance. The guidance won’t stick unless you have the relationship to support it. Prioritise your relationship with your child, and keep lines of communication open, no matter what.

Model confident behaviour with other people.

If you tend to back down easily so you don’t make a scene, but then later feel pushed around, it’s time to change that. Your child is learning from watching you. Experiment with finding ways to assert your own needs or rights while maintaining respect for the other person.

Directly teach your child respectful self-assertion.

Children need to know they can get their needs met while being respectful of other people. Give him words to stick up for himself early on: It’s my turn now; Hey, stop that; Hands off my body; It’s not okay to hurt; I don’t like being called that; I want you to call me by my name.

Teach your child basic social skills.

Unfortunately, bullies prey on those whom they perceive to be vulnerable. If your child has social-skill challenges, make it a priority to support him/her as mentioned above, to make them less attractive to bullies. Make games out of social skills and practise at home. Role play with your child how to join a game at the playground or introduce himself to another child at a party. Sometimes children want peer acceptance so much that they continue to hang around a group of peers even when one of the group leaders begins to mistreat them. If you suspect your child might be vulnerable, listen to what he says about peer interactions to help him learn to check in with his own inner wisdom, and provide healthy relationship opportunities for him, for example play dates.

Teach your child how the dynamics of bullying work.

Research shows that bullies begin with verbal harassment. How the “victim” responds to the first verbal aggression determines whether the bully continues to target a particular child. If the aggression gives the bully what he’s looking for — a feeling of power from successfully pushing the other child’s buttons — the aggression will generally escalate.

It’s imperative to discuss this issue before your child might be subject to bullying, so they can stand up for themselves successfully when a bully first “tests” them.

Role-play with your child how he can stand up to a bully. Point out to your child that the bully wants to provoke a response that makes the bully feel powerful, so showing emotion and fighting back are exactly what the bully feeds off. Explain that while your child can’t control the bully, he can always control his own response. So in every interaction, how he responds will either inflame the situation or defuse it. Your child needs to avoid getting “hooked” no matter how mad the bully makes him. The best strategy is always to maintain one’s own dignity, to keep your dignity while withdrawing from the situation, and not to attack or demean the other person.

To do this, simply say something calm like: You know, I’m just going to ignore that comment; I think I have something else to do right now.

Teach your child to count to 10 to stay calm, look the bully in the eye, and say one of these things. Practise until your child has a strong, self-assured tone.

Teach your child that there is no shame in walking away, or in telling an adult and asking for help. Bullying situations can escalate and saving face is less important than saving their life.

Teach them to intervene to prevent bullying when they see it.

When bystanders — children who are nearby — intervene correctly, they can stop bullying more than half the time and within seconds.

Teach basic bully avoidance.

Bullies operate where adults aren’t present, so if your child has been bullied, she should avoid unsupervised hallways, bathrooms, and areas of the playground.

Don’t hesitate to intervene.

Your job as the parent is to protect your child. That means that in addition to teaching your child to stick up for themselves, you may well need to call the teacher or principal. Don’t give your child the message that she’s all alone to handle this. And don’t assume that if there isn’t physical violence, /he/she isn’t being wounded in a deep way.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.