by Ayesha Madni
Bullying is a hot topic. It’s been the subject of New York Times articles. It’s in Salon, Slate, and The Atlantic. It’s the subject of several books, including journalist Emily Bazelon’s Sticks and Stones. Even President Obama has spoken about it. The issue is everywhere these days, and everyone is talking about the most dramatic cases, including an instance where a gay student committed suicide after being targeted by what his parents called “intense bullying.”
Whether your child has experienced bullying or you’re just worried about the possibility, there’s a silver lining. Psychological research supports the idea that teaching children good coping techniques can significantly decrease bullying – and if it does happen, your child won’t be as scarred by it. Here’s what you can do today to help your child deal with the possibility of bullying.
1. Teach Assertive Coping Strategies
Bullying almost always involves a power imbalance. And it’s not just physical strength that matters. Finnish psychologist Christina Salmivalli notes in a 2010 paper that bullies tend to be perceived as powerful and popular. In addition, a study by a pair of German psychologists found that even elementary-school-age children engage in bullying by social exclusion. Given the power imbalance, children who are bullied tend to withdraw.
Natural though it may be, this kind of passive response may only bolster bullies’ perceptions of themselves as physically and socially superior. It turns out passive coping strategies actually tend to reinforce bullying.
The most important skills to teach children in responding to bullying situations include remaining calm, saying “stop” assertively, and seeking adult help. Teaching kids to stick up for themselves can help them feel empowered in a frightening, power-imbalanced situation.
2. Help Build Emotional Intelligence
Dealing with bullying can be extremely difficult for the victim. Getting through it requires what psychologists sometimes call emotional intelligence. Building emotional intelligence helps children cope with stressful situations. Research by psychologist Susanne Denham of George Mason University has shown that building emotional intelligence helps children develop new coping strategies through emotional reasoning.
Emotional reasoning is a critical skill in bullying and conflict situations because it helps children understand why bullies are acting out against them. It can therefore help them to understand what is happening—and even to see ways they might act to resolve the bullying. Seeing that the bullying is not caused by anything that’s wrong with them, but by the bully’s emotions can help them see their way out.
And that’s good news for parents. It’s well established among educational psychologists that students can learn emotional intelligence, including the skills needed to deal with bullying.
3. Be a Good Role Model
People learn by observing models. In particular, they emulate those that they perceive to be good at dealing with what life throws at them. For children, these models are almost always parents (or other nurturing, trustworthy figures). But without examples of adults dealing with bullying, children are left not knowing what to do. And once they’ve encountered bullying, their natural response is often to try to avoid it (so says cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura of Stanford University).
We can teach our children how to deal with bullying by providing them with positive examples. Not only should we not engage in bullying behavior ourselves (of course we shouldn’t!), we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bullied either. The resources kids need to deal with bullying can be learned through observation. By seeing their parents model anti-bullying strategies, children can gain the confidence they need to implement them on their own.
4. Encourage Understanding of Others’ Perspectives
Of course, no parent wants to be the parent of a bully. But there are times when even well-adjusted children might engage in bullying behavior. We can discourage these kinds of behaviors by urging children to consider things from another’s perspective—namely, the victim’s. It might seem like a challenging task, but psychological research on perspective-taking has shown that children as young as kindergartners can develop increased awareness that others’ thoughts, knowledge, and feelings are different from their own. They have the ability to draw inferences about people’s intentions from their behaviors and past actions.
As such, when we engage in perspective-taking—-such as by teaching our children empathy—-we can get children who might bully to understand how their actions harm the victim.
5. Consider an Anti-Bullying Campaign (But Don’t Over-rely on It)
Is your school leading the charge on the anti-bully brigade? That’s great news, but you’re not off the hook quite yet. Because schools often lack the infrastructure, staffing, and resources to effectively implement them, the evidence on anti-bullying programs is mixed. Many programs are designed as one-time interventions. As a result, they don’t always take time to reinforce the skills they teach. However, there’s research to suggest that anti-bullying campaigns can have an impact if executed properly.
The world isn’t perfect and your school’s program might not be either. To complement an in-school anti-bullying program, you can teach resilience skills at home. That way, children can venture out into the world fully equipped with the kind of understandings and responses that will help protect themselves and others—including the bullies themselves.
With contribution by Ayesha Madni, PhD in Educational Psychology
Twigtale makes parenting easier by using the power of personalized stories. Twigtale’s child development experts script stories to help parents (& kids) navigate the challenges of early childhood. Whether welcoming a new sibling, moving homes, explaining adoption, or bullying, parents can personalize with family photos and details. Click here to view Twigtale's latest book addressing bullying behavior. A portion of proceeds will be donated to PACER!
5 Steps You Can Take to Stop Bullying was originally published on October 23, 2014. Modifications to style, arrangement, and linked sources were made on December 10, 2015.