As an after-school teacher for three years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to watch how bullies operate. And because the time I’ve spent with kids has been more focused on socializing than academics, I’ve been able to help those who are being bullied come up with strategies and find the strength to break out of that difficult cycle.
While there is a lot of attention devoted to bullying among adolescents, children can develop bullying patterns when they are still in elementary school. Every young child is different, but these parent-centric techniques can help you teach kids to manage bullies.
Be sensitive, and stay calm. A bullied child experiences a wide range of feelings. Parents and teachers need to listen and respond to the precise issues a child is facing without relying on cliched or stale advice. This requires sensitivity, but it’s also crucial to not overreact. Your child will follow your emotional lead, and the more outraged you are, the more worried and ashamed they’ll be.
“That sounds hard” is a phrase I’ve found useful with younger children. It expresses sympathy, encourages them to talk more, and confirms their situation without shaming and stigmatizing the bullied kid. Being bullied can be a humiliating, anxious position; a friendly, calm, general response is far more comforting than a big, emotional reaction.
Shame and embarrassment are powerful tools of bullies, so a matter-of-fact response normalizes the victim’s experience and can help allay your child’s fears. From there, coming up with a plan for how to deal with the problem feels less scary.
Help your child understand the school system. Young children are often hesitant to make waves. They respect authority, and the system. In the age of adults telling them “I don’t care who started it!” they may be afraid of “tattling.” Too often teachers apply the same punishments across the board, and that can negatively affect sensitive children.
This system of authority is an attempt at equality, but it doesn’t always allow for the fact that different children require different approaches. If you have a sensitive and bullied child, you should do what you can to correct that. Empower your child to stand up for himself. Talk with him and the teacher, communicating the problem clearly. That will help liberate your child from worrying about an unfair punishment system while also looping in the appropriate adults at the school.
Remember how bullies work. Fairly often — and especially with younger kids — bullies are engaging in power games, with an emphasis on the games. They may either lack empathy simply because they’re too focused on their enjoyment to consider who they may be hurting, or, more darkly, their enjoyment may be predicated entirely on hurting someone else.
But parents and teachers should remember that it isn’t the bully that matters, it’s the power dynamic. Bullies project a sense of confidence, authority and ownership that they seek desperately to impose. Nervous, shy and insecure kids are the most vulnerable because they often accept these constructs as fact and doubt themselves rather than question the bully.
Especially with younger and more sensitive children, it’s important to teach them the fault is with the bully, not with them. Encourage them to focus on friendships with other classmates.
Remember how bullies seem to your child. The trope of the secretly insecure bully is useful for adults, but kids don’t see them that way. Bullies walk with a swagger. They break rules and social codes of niceness with greed and cruelty. That’s why they’re bullies.
To those being bullied, they seem like powerful figures, and in the eyes of children, that power conveys a certain moral authority. After all, young children were taught that authority figures — such as teachers and parents — were to be trusted and followed. So when a bully takes that mantle of power it can be difficult for young children to question it.
Remind your child that bullies aren’t stronger, they’re just louder and meaner. Tell them that this bully is just like they are: the same age, the same class, the same town, and that there’s no special distinction that could justify the cruelty. By positioning this as a conflict among equal children, you demystify the bully and empower your child to think more of themselves — no matter what the bully might say.
Educate your kid on differences — and how to talk about those with their bully. I’m an extrovert, and I sincerely didn’t understand quiet kids. And so, fairly often, I would distress them when I tried to bring them into games that involved a lot of yelling and screaming.
Physical kids can be the same way, especially when they’re younger. They want desperately to play and can be rough and tumble. Younger children, in particular, may have a difficult time discerning pals from victims.
As teachers know, cajoling the bully is difficult. Bullying is a rewarding power game, and it’s hard to appeal to a very young child’s morals or compassion. Working with the bullied child can yield better understanding. Explain to your child that the bully is different from them, and that’s okay.
In some circumstances, it’s worth encouraging your child to explain this to the bully. Younger children inherently project their inner selves outward, and having your child create a simple explanation can help tremendously. As a teacher, I saw a difficult classroom dynamic largely resolved when a shy kid explained to his bully that he liked quiet games, not fighting. The bully was surprised and confused, but more embarrassed than annoyed. For the rest of the year, the bully was careful not to pick on his shyer classmate, not because he was yelled at or shamed, but out of simple understanding and decency.
By removing the morality and passion from the situation, the kids were able to get along. And because they figured this out without teachers, it was more authentic and lasting than any teacher-imposed rule.
Lev Novak is a former after-school teacher who, for better and worse, was treated by his students as an equal. His debut young adult novel, “Black Sabbath,” releases with Soho Press in September 2017.
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