With Lady Gaga leveraging her immense popularity to bring attention to the issue of bullying and the nation's first anti-bullying law going into effect in New Jersey this fall, there’s a real opportunity to make a major dent in the problem that was once dismissed with the platitude “boys will be boys.”
With this hyper-focus on bullying, there’s a greater chance that a victim of bullying will get help before it becomes too damaging. As a parent, there’s a lot you can do to prevent your child from being bullied.
Understand what bullying is
“Bullying is when one or more kids intentionally make a child feel less powerful or important,” said Joel Haber, an expert in bullying and author of Bullyproof Your Child For Life. It’s not fighting or aggressive behavior between two kids, where both have equal power. Bullying can be physical, verbal, or what is occurring more commonly, cyberbullying.
Talk with your kids often
You want your children to be comfortable talking to you, so keeping open communication with your kids. Start routinely talking about bullying.
“Tell your kids that it’s normal for kids to be mean to other kids and if it happens to you, it’s ok to talk about it,” Haber said. When talking about your child’s day, ask questions like, who did you have lunch with today, who’d you play with at recess? Did you have fun at recess? Ever notice any kids that get left out or teased? This will raise his awareness and make him more comfortable discussing the issue.
How not to become a victim
“Bullies pick on kids for who knows what reason,” said Dan Rauzi, an expert on cyberbullying and senior director of technology services and programs at Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “A lot of times there’s no rational reason behind it."
But there are certain responses that might attract the attention of a bully. Talk to your child about not responding reactively to a bully. “Bullies will target kids who overly react just to get them going, to watch the show,” Rauzi said.
Also, be sure that you’re not raising a victim, Haber said. Parenting in an overly disciplinarian way may make a child feel powerless, and can set him up for being a target of a bully.
Don’t ever say things that make kids feel powerless and small, such as “Do what I say or else;” “If you don’t listen, you’ll be grounded forever” or “If you do that again, I’ll embarrass you “.
Early warning signs
Most kids won’t come to their parents and report they’re being bullied because they may not recognize it for what it is, or because they’re ashamed and embarrassed.
“Most kids go to school because they want to connect. Their social lives become really important,” Haber said. “Look for signs that your child is not wanting to go to school."
Your child may complain of physical problems like stomachaches or headaches. Warning signs include difficulty concentrating on schoolwork, missing personal belongings, trouble sleeping or eating, having few friends and bullying others.
If your child is the target of a bully, there are several steps you need to take if your child describes being bullied.
• First empathize. Tell your child that it’s not his or her fault and that you know it’s tough to be bullied. Share a story of when you were bullied if it applies, tell him or her you’re proud of them for telling you, but don’t get melodramatic or overreact (he or she is probably already upset about it).
• Write down everything that has happened so that if you do call the school, you can present objective data rather than an emotional argument.
• Make a plan, but don’t take over. Brainstorm with your child about what to do. Assure her that you’re not going to deal with it in a way that will make it more embarrassing.
• If it’s a small incident, you don’t necessarily have to tell the school. But if it’s affecting your child’s ability to feel safe, then tell the school, and make sure the complaint is kept confidential. Some schools now have bullying prevention specialists.
• Don’t tell your child to hit the kid back. That can make a bully more aggressive and it makes the victim part of the problem. Try to get your child to use non aggressive strategies to handle it.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.