Protect your child against bullying

Bullying exists. We can’t escape this fact nor can we ignore the severe consequences it poses. Bullied children have been known to take their own lives to end their torment. Children as young as six have committed suicide because they could no longer tolerate being bullied. So how do you know if your child is being bullied? As parents, we often suspect signs of bullying, but are reluctant to cause trouble at school. If we are brave enough to bring up an incident with the school principal, we are often quick to assume we’ve overreacted when the teacher informs us it was a simple misunderstanding. No one wants to be the problem parent. Unfortunately, that’s why bullying still claims many lives each year.
 
As parents, we owe it to our children to take bullying seriously. Whether it is happening to them or someone they know, we must help. We cannot stand on the sidelines.
 
Here are six strategies you can take to protect your child against bullying:
 
1. Encourage your child to talk
A girlfriend of mine was sexually molested at the age of six. The man who molested her was nice to everyone, including her family. So when he told her he would kill her parents if she told anyone, she believed him.
 
It is important that your child knows when a person threatens her or anyone, she can come to you. I always tell my own children “if anyone says you can’t tell or else, you can always secretly tell me. We’ll figure a way out together.” I also tell them everyone should have at least one person in the world they feel comfortable telling everything to, the good and the bad. Everyone makes mistakes, and when a child (or an adult for that matter) is struggling with an issue, it is important she knows she can openly talk to you about it. Bullies threaten and scare their victims so much they render them helpless. If a child being bullied has a parent she can confide in, she has won part of the battle against bullying. Children as young as two should know they can count on you no matter what. It has helped my children so many times in life already and they are not even teenagers yet.
 
2. Listen carefully to your child
Of course, the first strategy requires commitment from you. You must be there to listen, and you must listen carefully to all the details. Make sure you truly understand their point of view first before you try to offer solutions. Think of your best friend. Think of the times you had to tell him something that upset you. You first wanted to feel completely understood before you were offered a solution, right? The best listeners are those who listen with empathy and seek to understand. It is the same for children. Don’t assume that you know best because you’re an adult. Likewise don’t rush to tell them what you think, especially if it is anything along the lines of “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” Never trivialize an issue your child is having, especially when it brings up strong emotions. Instead, ask questions; encourage your child to open up and ask for your child’s input in finding a solution. By doing so, he regains strength and becomes less susceptible to being bullied. This strategy is very important. If you mess up here, it will not matter how many times you tell him they he confide in you in the future, he won’t. No one wants to share problems with someone who will belittle him.
 
3. Empower your child to find a solution
At our junior kindergarten schools, when a child comes to tell us someone is bothering them, we don’t jump in as teachers. Instead, we coach our little ones to resolve the issue themselves. We see children younger than two saying “I don’t like it when you grab me; please don’t do it again.” And it works! By the time they leave our schools at age five, they are incredibly assertive. They are also uncommonly kind because they have learned to respect and understand other people’s boundaries and feelings.
 
If your child has not had the same experience, it is never too late to start. Instead of butting in, think about the issue with your child and ask her how she thinks she could put an end to it. Once you have a good solution, follow up until the issue is resolved. Don’t assume the solution will resolve the issue immediately. For example, she might decide to confront some friends who have spread hurtful rumors about her. Her friends might even “apologize,” but be prepared to deal with the issue again. Bullying has many ways of rearing its ugly head. If your child was, in fact, being bullied, simply talking with her once will not end the issue. Follow-up with your child and make sure nothing else is happening. Your child might be grateful you were there to listen and find a solution, but if it didn’t work, she might convince herself there is nothing she can do against the bully. If she knows you are still supporting her, she will go to you again.
 
These three strategies can and should be applied in every case. If your child has fallen victim to a bully, you’ll be on your way to resolving the problem. If it was simply a misunderstanding between friends (and this, only your child can determine), you’ll equip your child with the tools he’ll need to deal with bullying in the future.
 
4. Be prepared to involve the school
If the issue grants it (for example, your child was hit by another child – even if it’s a friend), you must tell the school. Regardless of what solution you may have come up with, tell the teacher first. Ask what the school plans to do with respect to the incident and expect an answer. Your child deserves it. Don’t let the teacher tell you it was a simple misunderstanding. Nearly 75 percent of all bullying goes undetected by teachers, even when the bullied child reports it! Bullies are very clever at hiding, and often have a group of supporters who will vouch for anything they say. Often, the bully plays victim in front of teachers, and portrays the bullied child as the troublemaker.
 
I also encourage you to ask the school principal what their strategy is to deal with bullying, even before anything happens. Every school should have a good strategy in place to eradicate the problem. Insisting on your school being up to par in this area can not only protect your child, it can protect all the other children as well.
 
Once you have reported the problem, follow-up with the teacher to ensure all the necessary steps were taken. If not, escalate the matter to the principal’s office. Do not wait until several incidents have taken place; the longer your child suffers in the hands of a bully, even from “meaningless” teasing, the weaker he becomes in the eyes of the bully, and the more difficult it is to stop.
 
My oldest son once came home completely humiliated. Another boy in the school bus pulled my son’s pants down in front of everyone. That same afternoon, as soon as I heard, I called the school and reported it to the vice-principal. The child was a few years older than my son, and did not know him from class, only from the bus. That very evening, the boy’s parents were called and informed of what had happened. The next morning, both my son and the boy were called to the principal’s office to discuss what had happened. Not only did the issue get resolved on the spot, the boy respected my child for not tolerating that type of teasing and for asserting his rights. They later became friends. We even invited him to our house to play, several times. It was very important for my child to see that what happened was not appropriate, should not happen, and can be resolved efficiently without violence. It was also important for this boy to learn boundaries, and to learn that having done something inappropriate does not mean he is a “bad” kid. We all make mistakes, and we all deserve a chance to learn from them.
 
5. Don’t expect your child to fit in
If your child is overweight, has a learning difference, a silly laugh, a funny last name, or is different in any way, don’t try to make her fit in. She is who she is. If you don’t accept her the way she is, how can she even begin to accept herself? I encourage you, of course, to instill a healthy and loving lifestyle at home. Beyond that, show her what is special about her and love every part of her. Young children are still learning to understand that not everyone is the same and that there is nothing wrong with being different. Everyone is better at some things than they are at others. With time and good parenting, children will come to understand that about each other. Until then, they might laugh or tease or even hurt children who seem inadequate in their eyes. By following the above steps, you’re doing your part to ensure this does not happen to your child. However, your child’s confidence will be bruised at times and no message will speak louder than the one you are sending. If you say there is nothing wrong with her, then in so many ways try to make her “less different,” you can be sure she will know. Nothing you say will heal that wound. Once a child thinks she deserves to be bullied, it becomes a much more severe issue.
  
6. Look at your own habits
Few parents think their own home is contributing to the problem, but statistics show most bullies are also bullied, at home. Many children being bullied also are being treated disrespectfully at home by siblings or by their own parents. Have zero tolerance in your home for harsh words, put downs, and especially hitting. Do not attempt to resolve any issue by making someone feel worthless, or by showing that you are stronger. If this is happening in your family and is too difficult for you to tackle alone, see a counselor. There are many resources available to families for free. Another option is to read a good parenting book. Do not give up on this issue.
 
Bullying is much too complex to fully cover in one article. If you’re a parent interested in this topic, I recommend you read “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander,” by Barbara Coloroso. If your child is the bully, if the situation is more severe, or if you need help establishing a non-bullying policy for your school there are other great books that offer strategies to teach your child. They can also help you understand what role your child plays by simply being a witness to bullying incidents.
 
Natacha V. Beim is a writer, speaker, teacher, and the founder or Core Education & Fine Arts Junior Kindergarten schools (www.cefa.ca <http://www.cefa.ca> ). You can reach her at natacha@cefa.ca.