How to protect your child from bullies

April 17, 2012

Q. My grandson, 61 / 2, is in first grade in Germany, where his parents are working, and he is being bullied by his classmates. I can even see why he is a target. He is immature, he is quite small, he is extremely bright and he’s not German.

Some of the bigger boys, who may be more mature, kick him, choke him and knock him down if there is no supervision on the playground. A social worker at the school is helping my grandson deal with this problem, and the parents are talking with her, but how can they help their son deal with these bullies? How can they empower him?

I’m afraid these bullies will make my grandson hate school or turn him into a fearful little boy. You know how grandmas worry!

A. Your grandson needs to know that bullies are made, not born; that they try to act stronger than anyone else because life has made them feel so weak; and that they look down on others because they are really looking down on themselves.

Your grandson also needs to know that a bully seldom attacks anyone unless he has a small gang to back him up. These bullies-in-training are his cheerleaders. They willingly echo his words, throw a punch (if he throws one first), keep a watch out for grown-ups and even lie for him — and themselves — if they’re caught because they don’t want their leader to bully them or throw them out of the group. Everyone wants to belong to something, even in first grade.


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

It’s the bully, however, who decides which child is the most vulnerable, because he likes an easy target. He may mock the way the child walks or talks, because he knows that these basic traits are very hard to change. He may ridicule his clothes or his sneakers, because he knows that he didn’t have many choices, or, as you discovered, he may attack a small child because he’s small for his age — and a foreigner.

A bully also chooses children who are safe targets, and most boys are fairly safe. Even a 6-year-old usually doesn’t tell his parents or his teacher that he has been humiliated unless the bullying gets really bad.

And most bullies prefer to harass children at school and usually in places with little or no supervision: the bathrooms, the lunch tables, the hallways and the playground. Bullying is also more likely to occur if the school is too big for the principal to keep track of everyone, if the teachers don’t respect the children and don’t demand respect either, if the school isn’t a warm and positive place, if the principal doesn’t set clear limits and enforce them, and if the school doesn’t have a strong anti-bullying policy.

Even if the policy is a good one, it doesn’t sound as though it is being followed too well at your grandson’s school. To make some changes, the parents should tell the principal how their son is being treated at school, because she will probably pay more attention to them than she would pay to the social worker.

They also should ask her to send the school’s anti-bullying rules home with each student and read them aloud at the next parent meeting. They could also request that parents take turns monitoring the playground and the cafeteria from noon to 1 every day.

The parents can also strengthen their son, both psychologically and physically, if they sign him up for an activity that will help him develop one of his three to four natural talents. The more they encourage his strengths, rather than his weaknesses, the more self-confident he’ll be.

They might also enroll him in one of the martial arts, so he can think about the karate chop he’d like to give to that bully one day. If your grandson focuses on his courage, he’ll always feel braver and better able to stand up to any child — or any teacher or boss — who tries to bully him.

You can also help your grandson by giving his parents a copy of “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander” by Barbara Coloroso (HarperCollins, 2009, $15). It’s probably the best book ever written on that sorry subject.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read more

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly. Her next chat is scheduled for April 26.

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