Now one of the most widespread problems at schools across the US and Canada, bullying has risen to the top of the priority list for many educators and parents. And with more alarming news of bullying and its aftereffects flooding the news, parents want to know: is it possible to "bully-proof" a child?
Bennett Leventhal, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Child Mental Health and Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Illinois, says the consequences of bullying can include difficulty in school and an increased risk of developing emotional problems and even having suicidal thoughts and behavior. “This is not trivial business,” Leventhal says. “People who think that you just have to toughen up your kid and they’ll be fine—this just isn’t so.”
Leventhal explains that the adverse outcomes associated with bullying affects the bullies as well as the kids being bullied. Kids who are bullied sometimes turn into bullies themselves. This is why, Leventhal says, children need to be given guidelines and training to prevent bullying from taking place.
The goal is to create a zero-tolerance environment at school. To do that, schools must teach children that reporting a bullying incident is different from tattling—that it’s crucial for them to speak up when they are bullied, or when they witness someone else being bullied.
“Parents need to understand that the solution to bullying is with the parents,” Leventhal says. “When parents talk to their kids about this, they need to talk about how they as adults can protect the kids.” Leventhal says parents must create an environment where their children feel comfortable telling them about the bullying. If children don’t trust their parents and think their parents will make things worse—perhaps by calling the bully’s parents or talking to the bully themselves—children will be much less likely to tell their parents.
Finding someone who can help is essential for kids who are bullied, because it brings them to the conclusion that they are not responsible for the bullying, says Bill Belsey, founder of bullying.org. This understanding helps children develop the self-confidence necessary to stand up to a bully.
Parents should also recognize, however, that no matter what they say or how hard they try to create a supportive and safe environment, some children will simply be too scared or intimidated to tell their parents. “Parents should tell their kids that if they are too scared, for whatever reason, to talk to an adult, they need to talk to a friend,” Belsey says.
The Silent Majority
Peer support is one of the most important components to addressing bullying, according to Belsey. “Bullying will cease in less than 10 seconds most of the time when peers intervene,” Belsey says. “Eighty-five percent of the people affected by bullying are the silent majority. And it’s the silent majority who give bullies the power.”
Julie Hertzhog, director of the Bullying Prevention Project for the Pacer Center in Minneapolis, agrees that the silent majority exists because kids are so often too frightened to speak up. “We came up with a plan for my son who has Down’s syndrome that involved four underground advocates,” Hertzhog says. “We gave these students some training in recognizing bullying and told them that their role is to report anonymously if my son was being bullied.” The beauty of this plan, Hertzhog explains, is that it gave the children an advocacy method.
But Belsey encourages parents to talk to their children about stepping in immediately if they see someone being bullied. If they’re too scared to step in by themselves, they grab a friend and the two of them step in together. “There’s power in numbers,” Belsey says. “Parents can prepare their children to talk to their friends about how they, together, will get involved if they see someone being bullied.”
And Leventhal says one of the best ways parents can help their kids is by getting involved themselves. “There are several very successful programs for community involvement,” Leventhal says. “These programs have different types of teaching materials for parents, teachers, and the kids.” Leventhal points to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, developed by Swedish research psychology professor Dan Olweus, as one of the top recognized programs. This program was recently selected as one of the model programs to be used in the US national violence prevention initiative in 1999.
Tips for Bully-proofing Kids
- Remember that children of all ages can experience bullying at school. Leventhal suggests you begin talking to your kids about bullying as early as preschool. Bullying gets really significant in grade school and is typically more physical, but in high school it becomes more subtle with social intimidation, exclusion, and cyberbullying, which includes intimidating e-mails, texts, Facebook messages, etc.
- Create a comfortable place for children to talk to you about their troubles at school, including bullying. Hertzhog suggests you let your children know that they will not be punished for reporting a bullying incident—taking away their cell phone, for instance, because you don’t want them receiving threatening texts anymore. Try to make them understand that you will not do anything to make the situation worse; in fact, you will do what it takes to make things better for them.
- Help your children understand the difference between reporting a bullying incident and tattling on a peer. Make sure they understand what bullying is, with many examples of different kinds of bullying.
- Help your children make a plan for what they will do in different situations in the future. Together, designate an adult at school they will go to about a bullying incident.
- Make sure your children understand the power of peer support and the power in numbers. Help them organize a meeting with their friends to discuss bullying, how they will respond to it in the future, and how they will help one another and other kids who are being bullied.