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Bully-Proofing Our Kids

Written by Michele Borba Ed.D.

Expert advice on how to help your children deal with bullies. Parents, get answers to solve this growing problem.

"My son's only seven, but he's been coming home upset everyday. He says a boy named Mark keeps teasing him. Now the rest of the kids won't play with him because they are afraid Mark will start picking on them, too. He's miserable and doesn't want to go to school. What can I do to help him?"

Some of the toughest problems parents must deal with happen right on the school playground where teasing, bullying and mean-spirited kids abound. There seems to be an epidemic of mean-acting kids these days. In fact, the National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children skip school every day because they fear being attacked or intimidated by other students.While we can't prevent the pain insults can cause, we can lessen our kids chances of being bullied.

In my book, Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, I tell parents the best thing to do is teach our kids how to deal with their tormentors. Doing so will show them there are ways to resolve conflicts without losing face or resorting to violence and will boost their confidence. So the next time your child is upset from teasing, here's my advice on what you can do:

Listen and gather facts. The first step is often the hardest for parents: listen to your child's whole story without interrupting. Your goal is to try to figure out what happened, who was involved, where and when the teasing took place, and why your child was teased. Unfortunately, teasing is a part of growing up, but some kids seem to get more than their fair share of insults. If your child appears to be in no immediate danger, keep listening to find out how she reacts to the bullying. By knowing what reaction didn't stop the bully, you can offer your child a more effective option.

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Teach a bully-proofing strategy. What may work with one child may not with another, sobully proofing your kids it's best to discuss a range of options and then choose the one or two your child feels most comfortable with. Here are six of the most successful strategies to help kids defend themselves:

1. Assert yourself. Teach your child to face the bully by standing tall and using a strong voice. Your child should name the bullying behavior and tell the aggressor to stop: "That is teasing. Stop it" or "Stop making fun of me. It's mean."

2.Question the response. Ann Bishop,who teaches violence prevention curriculums, tells her students to respond to an insult with a non-defensive question: "Why would you say that?" or "Why would you want to tell me I am dumb (or fat) and hurt my feelings?"

3. Use "I want."Communication experts suggest teaching your child to address the bully beginning with "I want" and say firmly what he wants changed: "I want you to leave me alone." or "I want you to stop teasing me.?"

4.Agree with the teaser. Consider helping your child create a statement agreeing with her teaser. Teaser: "You're dumb."  Child: "Yeah, but I'm good at it." or Teaser: "Hey, four eyes." Child: "You're right, my eyesight is poor."

5. Ignore it Bullies love it when their teasing upsets their victims, so help your child find a way to not let his tormentor get to him. A group of fifth graders told me ways they ignore their teasers: "Pretend they're invisible","Walk away without looking at them," "Quickly look at something else and laugh," and "Look completely uninterested."

6.Make Fun of the Teasing. Fred Frankel, author of Good Friends Are Hard to Find suggests victims answer every tease with a reply, but not tease back. The teasing often stops, Frankel says, because the child lets the tormentor know he's not going to let the teasing get to him (even if it does). Suppose the teaser says, " You are stupid."  The child says a rehearsed come back such as: "Really?" Other responses could be: "So", or "You don't say," "And your point is?" or "Thanks for telling me."


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Rehearse the strategy with your child.

Once you choose a technique, rehearse it together so your child is comfortable trying it. The trick is for your child to deliver it assuredly to the bully -- and that takes practice. Explain that though he has the right to feel angry, it's not okay to let it get out of control. Besides, anger just fuels the bully. Try teaching your child the CALM approach to defueling the tormentor: 

  • Cool down. When you confront the bully, stay calm and always in control.Don't let him think he's getting to you. If you need to calm down, count to twenty slowly inside your head or say to yourself, "Chill out!" And, most importantly, tell your child to always get help whenever there is a chance he or she might be injured.
  • Assert yourself. Try the strategy with the bully just like you practiced.
  • Look at the teaser straight in the eye. Appear confident, hold your head high and stand tall.
  • Mean it! Use a firm, strong voice. Say what you feel, but don't be insulting, threaten or tease back.

Like it or not, most kids are bound to encounter children who are deliberately mean. By teaching kids effective ways to respond to verbal abuse, we can reduce their chances of being victims as well as helping them learn how to cope more successfully with future adversities. Of course, no child should ever have to deal with ongoing teasing, meanness and harassment. It's up to adults and kids alike to take an active stand against bullying and stress that cruelty is always unacceptable.

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Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an internationally-recognized consultant on increasing childrens' self-esteem and achievement and is the author of 18 publications. This article is excerpted from her latest book, Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing (Jossey Bass).