The trouble with bullies

Physical or emotional differences make children targets for bullies. Being a bully or a victim of a bully puts children at risk for engaging in violent behaviors, such as frequent fighting and carrying a weapon, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Bullying comes in different forms. It is commonly thought of as an actual or threatened act of physical violence. But name calling, spreading rumors, unrelenting teasing, and deliberately excluding a child from an activity can be other forms of bullying. Racial slurs, mocking cultural traditions, and unwanted physical contact are bullying.

Signs your child is being bullied may be physical injuries, inventing reasons to avoid going to school, changing routines or routes to school, and the sudden disappearance of belongings.

How should you react when your children have a close encounter with a bully?

The worst thing you can do, experts say, is tell them to learn karate, carry a concealed weapon, or go back and beat up the bully. Responding to a bully with aggression simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and fighting. It doesn't solve the problem because the bully gets the satisfaction of seeing the victim upset and one or both children is likely to get hurt.

A better solution—requiring more parental support and involvement—is to try to resolve conflicts verbally instead of physically.

Of course, addressing a bully calmly may not have an immediate effect on his or her behavior, admits Myrna B. Shure, PhD, author of Raising a Thinking Child: Help Your Young Child to Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along with Others. But, says Dr. Shure, "if a bully is spoken to nicely and calmly, it may be a whole different way of talking that he or she has never heard before."

What specific steps can parents take to help children deal with a bully?

  • Help your child know the difference between normal teasing and aggressive acts, bossiness, or discrimination.

  • Encourage your child to tell you about bullying. Sometimes children are reluctant to talk about it because they are embarrassed or it makes them feel weak. You may begin by asking your child if there are kids at school who have been bullied.

  • Don't just shrug it off, blame your child, or act as if you are disappointed in him or her when your child complains of bullying. Being a victim can harm his or her self-esteem and cause other serious emotional problems. Your reaction is important. Let your child know you are on her or his side.

  • Explain that kids who bully are usually unhappy or have been bullied by others and, it is not your child's fault.

  • Use role playing to show your kids what they can say and how they can say it when responding to a bully. Recovering your child's self-esteem is important.

  • Teach that it's OK for them (or you, depending on their age) to calmly confront the bully or to alert authority figures about ongoing bullying.

  • Let adult role models (for instance, teachers or principals) help set the tone that bullying is not permitted. Use a teacher, coach, or parent as mediator or messenger to ask the bully why he or she is behaving so cruelly. Of course, if a bully poses a physical danger to your children, immediately contact his or her parents and teachers to suggest intervention and counseling for the child.

  • If you believe bullying is permitted or ignored in the setting, discuss this with teachers, principals, or other administrators. There are specially trained consultants whose job it is to educate teachers and other adults about how to extinguish bullying.
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