Dr. Kate, my 12-year-old son has had a vacation from being bullied this summer. Can you give me some advice on how to help him when he returns to school?
A: Although bullying has existed for centuries, today it seems more prevalent than ever before. According to the latest data samples (2010) from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 29 percent of children are bullied. This includes face-to-face bullying, as well as cyber-bullying.
Bullying is defined as a form of intimidation or an attempt to have power over someone who is perceived as weaker. There are two types of bullying. Physical aggression or intimidation occurs in face-to-face bullying and is stereotypically between males. This type of bullying includes name-calling, teasing, consistent shoving, poking, posturing and cutting off in lines at school. Social-emotional bullying involves the use of more covert emotional methods to bully another who is seen as weaker and is most often employed by females.
Bullying prevention must occur at a societal level with consistent involvement by policymakers, school administrators and all adults. It is also essential to work with the victims by encouraging them to speak out when they are being bullied. One important aspect is to help the victim develop his sense of self, specifically focusing on building confidence.
Here are some ways parents (and all adults) can help children deal with bullying:
Promote communication. Encourage your child to speak up when he is being bullied. Routinely ask him if anyone is bothering him and take notice of his peer interactions. This includes frenemies; friends that sometimes act like a bully, especially when they do not get their own way in the friendship.
Practice confidence. Nonverbal communication speaks volumes. Have your son practice holding his head high, standing straight up, looking the bully in the eye, and being able to walk around the bully, nodding at him and not avoiding him. Avoidance, cowering and quivering all indicate fear, and bullies love this in their targets. Part of practicing involves role-playing in which parents play the bully while the child uses the nonverbal techniques mentioned. Believe it or not, with practice you can make headway here. This involves retraining the brain to react differently than the default fear response.
Speak up and speak out. If the bully follows your child, confronts him or pokes him, coach your child to say with a firm voice “STOP!” or “KNOCK IT OFF!” This demonstrates that he is able to defend himself against the behavior he does not like and inform others without being a direct tattletale. Find opportunities in your home or with friends to have your child practice these skills in real life.
Use technology during practice sessions. There’s a difference between commanding the word “STOP!” and whining or pleading. Practice using your child’s recorded voice so he can hear the strength of it and get used to using it. You can also record the role-play simulations on video so your child can view his posture and positive stance.
Educate your child on name-calling. Name-calling is not something that needs to devastate him or make him afraid. Name-calling is just a way for the bully to intimidate and show power. It’s nothing to be afraid of, and it shouldn’t shake their confidence.
Get rid of old negativity. As part of developing a new persona, have your child rid himself of old negativity and gain a sense of power and control. Have him write the names of the children who have bullied him and together flush them down the toilet or burn them in a fire.
Encourage your child to walk in groups of peers. Bullies are less likely to confront a potential victim in a group setting. It’s helpful for your child to be with others and not necessarily just close friends. Whenever possible, educate your child’s peers and friends about how to handle a bully situation, even if they’re not the target.
Always inform the school of the bullying. Talk to the school staff about your child’s fears and his desire to display a more assertive and confident posture in response to the bully and ask the staff for ways they can support him. For example, ask if he can be with a friend at all times during the start of the school year, so that his new responses can be delivered with a supportive friend nearby.
Educate your child about the bullies. Bullies act like bullies because they’re helpless and powerless in their own lives. Framing a bully as someone who is desperately trying to gain power by picking on others should make it easier for your child to not be intimidated.
Watch for cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying is on the rise with teens’ increasing use of technology via social media sites and apps. Specific tools for addressing cyber-bullying will be discussed in an upcoming column.
Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to www.drkateroberts.com, www.twitter.com/DrKateParenting, www.facebook.com/Dr.KateRoberts or www.pinterest.com/DrKateParenting.