In my pediatric practice, I ask about bullying: “Are there any bullies or mean kids in your school?” or “Have you ever gotten picked on?” Parents will occasionally nod their heads, but children nearly always respond affirmatively.
Bullying is ubiquitous, whether parents are aware of it. In surveys, children report being bullied, witnessing bullying behavior and bullying others. Most teachers are aware of the problem, but parents might be the last to know.
In my new book, “Marvin’s Monster Diary 4: Neighborhood Bully (But We Stand Up, Big Time!),” Marvin and his friends discover that bullying is quite a complex problem. They devise a role-playing game to solve the situation while using mindfulness tools to help kids stop and think, thereby taking charge of their own challenges.
The book teaches how bullying affects everyone who witnesses it. Children often support bullying behavior, and this positive reinforcement of a negative behavior perpetuates the problem. Thus, bullying behavior is often repeated. Observers might walk away from the situation, feeling uncomfortable or fearing involvement, while others might come to the aid of the target.
Those who bully can be either socially popular or socially marginalized, someone who may have been bullied themselves. A vicious cycle can be set in motion where those who are bullied can be at risk for bullying others.
If your child is bullying others, recognize that this is a behavior that, like any behavior, can be changed. It is not a character flaw. Referring to a child as someone engaging in bullying behavior rather than as a bully reinforces the ability to change.
You can take steps to help your child change their behavior, which will in turn prevent future problems, such as trouble with work, family or even the law:
Explain that bullying behavior can be changed and provide tools to do it.
Give real examples of the good and bad results of your child’s actions.
Be sure your child knows that bullying behavior is never okay.
Take care to model kind and compassionate conversation and behaviors.
Children need to develop constructive strategies for getting what they want. All children can learn to treat others with respect.
When your child needs discipline, explain why the behavior was wrong and how your child can change it. Natural consequences work best, so when a child has used their phone for inappropriate texting, removing the phone privilege for one or two days would be appropriate. Frequently applied, small “punishments” work better than those that last for a long time.
Together with the school principal, teachers, counselors and parents/guardians of the children your child has bullied, find positive ways to stop the bullying. Help your child identify positive attributes in their target. Spending time together, perhaps supervised, can really help.
If your child is being targeted, it’s understandable to feel stressed. Establishing good communication channels with school personnel and other parents and students will help nip the problem in the bud, or at least mitigate it.
If you suspect your child is being bullied, you must act. This is not snitching. It is protecting a child’s civil rights — as well as their minds and bodies. Alert school officials to the problems and begin working with them on solutions. Unfortunately, some school principals might deny the problem, citing their “anti-bullying code.” Most, though, will be cooperative and supportive.
Request a meeting and invite all stakeholders, such as principals, teachers, guidance counselors or other parents or guardians. Develop a plan of action that addresses the problem behaviors, the perpetrators, the targets, and the necessary action items. Make sure your child knows what to do and where to turn if the bullying behaviors continue. Arrange to meet with this group again after two or three weeks.
Teaching children how to respond to teasing is helpful. Start with talking about what they can do and say if it happens again.
But just telling your child to do and say these things is not enough. For many children, these skills do not come naturally — lots of practice is needed.
Teach your child the following responses to bullying or teasing.
Ask the person bullying you, “Does it make you feel good when you make me feel bad?”
Look the bully in the eye.
Stand tall and stay calm — breathe.
Say in a firm voice: “I don’t like what you are doing,” or “Please do not talk to me like that,” or “Why would you say that?”
Your child should not be afraid to ask an adult for help when bullying happens. Because some children are embarrassed about being bullied, assure your child that being bullied is not their fault.
There are many adult-supervised groups, in and out of school, that your child can join. Invite your child’s friends over to your home. Children who are loners are more likely to get picked on, and a child’s friends can offer crucial support in a bullying situation.
As your child participates in activities, they will develop new abilities and social skills. When children feel good about how they relate to others, they are less likely to be picked on.
Avoid sweeping problems under the rug. Instead, give your child the skills necessary to help them make their voices heard. Like any learned skill, these can be practiced at home. Teach stress-management techniques, identify the specific problems encountered, help your child vocalize those problems, and review the above responses that your child can use.
Hopefully, when children and parents become more mindful and make the changes necessary to create kind, supportive, compassionate environments, we can all help protect the kingdom of childhood. JN
Raun D. Melmed, MD, FAAP, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, the director of the Melmed Center in Scottsdale and co-founder and medical director of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. He is the author of a series of books on mindfulness for children. Marvin’s Monster Diary 4: Neighborhood Bully (But We Stand Up, Big Time!) is available from bookstores, online booksellers and directly from familius.com.