I’m a mother of 5 wonderful children, two of whom have been struggling with being bullied. They often come home expressing negative feelings about their social interactions in school and on the school bus. My five-year-old son describes being called names on the bus, while my seven-year-old daughter describes girls looking at her the wrong way and not including her during recess. I feel that my son’s school doesn’t put enough of an emphasis on anti-bullying school rules. On the other hand, my daughter’s school describes itself as a school that doesn’t tolerate bullying. Every so often they bring in a professional to discuss how detrimental bullying can be and they reward positive interpersonal relationships. That said, I guess I’m confused about what constitutes bullying. I would also like some guidance on how to teach my children to protect themselves and how I can empower them and protect them. I have reached out in the past to my children’s teachers and principals, but that only created a temporary fix. I would appreciate any guidance you can offer.
Thanks for submitting a question related to a topic that, sadly, never gets old. Unfortunately, in my private practices in both Brooklyn and NJ, parents and children bring up concerns related to bullying on a daily basis. I find that the term “bullying” is defined loosely, so I have done some research to shed light on the matter. In her article published in 2017 in the American Psychological Association, Dr. Dorothy Espelague defines a bully as one who repeatedly and intentionally inflicts another individual with discomfort and injury. Bullying can take form verbally, physically or even with subtle actions. Moreover, the target cannot defend himself and does nothing to trigger the bullying.
I believe that as a parent, what you should be most cognizant of are subtle actions. You described two young children who are being bullied. Some of the bullying sounds overt. This means that the bullying is something clear to other observers, such as a fire destroying a building. On the other hand, some of the bullying sounds covert, acting as a silent carbon monoxide leak. Essentially, covert bullying can be just as detrimental but difficult to detect. Therefore, when your daughter states something such as, “They are looking at me the wrong way,” she is trying to make sense of her ego-dystonic feelings. These subtle feelings can make her feel just as confused, but can be less detectable than being called negative names.
In order to address your question related to guidance, I have compiled some skills from Janet Lehman, MSW. The first step is to listen to what your child is experiencing. Although you might feel compelled to take immediate action, take a step back and listen to your child express his or her experiences in a neutral way. Keep the channels of communication open by asking your child, “How can I help?” Moreover, avoid blaming your child for “bringing it on himself.” This will only raise his level of anxiety and avoid his ability to share with you without feeling judged. Avoid retaliating against and bully and his family. Instead, try to empower your child to problem solve on his own. Coach your child how to react by role-playing and not “wearing his heart on his sleeve.” Explain to him that bullies look out for children who will give them the reaction they are looking for. Find a principal, guidance counselor or teacher your child trusts and can speak to when he is being taunted so he can feel safe. Always take your child’s side and teach him how to verbalize what he is experiencing. Moreover, find an activity your child excels at, such as art or swimming. This will help him create a space where he can flourish as an individual. Last but not least, helping your child heal from bullying is a long process. Help him understand that he is not in control of other individual’s reactions, but he has full control of his responses as a kind and giving human.