As a parent, when you hear the phrase “bullying,” your first worry may be that your child is a bullying victim. After all, recent studies have reported that almost 50 percent of students in grades four to 12 have been bullied. You probably never imagined your child could be the bully – but 30 percent of surveyed children admit to just that.
How could you, as a parent, be unknowingly raising a bully? To find out, ENTITY spoke with Dr. Michele Borba, a globally-recognized education psychologist and author of 22 parenting and education books, and Julia Cook, a former school counselor and teacher who has written 80+ children’s books, including Bully B.E.A.N.S.
What should parents do – or not do – to raise a child free of bullying tendencies? Here are five expert-backed tips.
Let’s admit it: You want your kids to be the all-star basketball player, the prom queen or the star of the fifth grade gifted-and-talented-class. You want your kids to succeed. Sometimes, however, your love for them can blind you to their problems. For instance, a 2015 survey found that 55 percent of parents don’t talk to their children about stress, anxiety or depression. Bullying can be an equally tricky topic.
What red flags should you start paying attention to no matter how “wonderful” you think your bundle of joy may seem? “One thing parents should take seriously is whether they are getting one or more reports from other people about their child’s behavior,” explains Dr. Borba. “Bullying is situational and, 85 percent of the time, occurs when adults are not present.”
If you start having doubts over your child’s behavior, Cook suggests that you (honestly) ask yourself a few questions. Consider, does your kid:
On their own, answering “yes” to any of these questions doesn’t automatically mean your kid is a bully. However, they might mean that you should talk more about bullying with your child or watch out for indications of bullying.
Just because most bullying occurs out of your sight doesn’t mean you shouldn’t observe your child’s behavior with others when you can. To figure out your child’s “emotional literacy,” Borba advises parents to observe how their children act around other children. “If they observe bullying or bad-spirited behavior in their child, then parents should use inductive discipline,” she says. “Pull the child aside and ask, ‘How would you feel if this happened to you'”
If you notice that your child shows aggressive tendencies, you might want to intentionally involve them in more activities requiring empathy. “Expose your child to situations where he/she needs to care and become more aware of the needs of others, like taking care of a baby or a pet,” says Cook. “You can also involve your child in teamwork activities where the accomplishments of the team far out-weigh the accomplishments of its members.” This can show your kid that there “there is no I in TEAM!”
Sure, there will be instances when you kid could bully others and you won’t be there to stop them. However, the more you opportunities you give your child to learn empathy, the less likely they’ll be to choose aggression instead.
Do you read to your child everyday? According to a 2016 survey of nearly 3,000 American families, only 54 percent of children under age five are read to at home five to seven days a week. Even worse, only 51 percent of kids from age six to 17 reported reading a book for fun at the time of the survey.
You might be wondering what bullying has to do with a lack of book reading. The answer? A lot. “Literary fiction books tend to have emotionally charged storylines … and exposing [your children to books like these] will help them understand the feelings and emotions of the characters,” says Dr. Borba. “Parents should also talk to their child, and encourage them to get off the phone or electronic device. Face-to-face conversational skills are important.”
You can also increase your child’s “emotional literacy” – and therefore decrease their likelihood of being a bully – with family movie nights. “Watch movies with your child that include empathetic messages,” suggests Cook. “Remember, empathy is a verb: you have to experience it to understand it.”
Reducing bullying by simply opening a book or clicking on a movie may sound too good to be true. In light of studies like this one, though, these may be some of the easiest anti-bullying tools out there today.
You may be wondering, “But what about the bullying program at my child’s school? Can’t I rely on that for help?” Unfortunately, these programs may not be as effective as parents hope. In fact, one 2011 study found that only 19 out of 44 examined anti-bullying programs were effective. Why?
For Dr. Borba, the main issue is that programs often “preach that they don’t tolerate bullying, but [don’t] share how someone can stop it from happening.” Instead, parents and school should “teach bystanders how to step in. For instance, by moving closer to the victim, which takes the power out of the bully.”
When your own child is the bully, teaching without preaching could feel a lot more complicated. However, Cook suggests that parents “teach your child that EVERYONE needs three things: See me … Hear me … and validate me. Have your child ask him/herself the question: Does this person that I am hanging out with feel seen, heard and validated by me? What can I do that make that happen?”
If you notice that your child tends to get aggressive in certain “triggering” scenarios, you also might want to try acting them out. “Role-play with your child effective ways for dealing with situations that don’t involve bullying,” says Cook.
Knowing the “right” things to say as a parent isn’t always easy. However, bullying behavior probably won’t stop unless you say or do something.
What’s even harder than accepting that your child is a bully? Realizing that they may have learned it from you.
“As a parent, you need to look at yourself,” says Cook. “Are you a bully? Bullying is a learned behavior.”
The good thing is that, even if you are a bully, you can unlearn this behavior and learn empathy instead – and so can your child. As Dr. Borba explains, “Parents must be willing to model empathetic behavior constantly in the child’s life by talking to them, reading to them, asking them questions. It should be a daily exercise until the child can finally show empathy without the parent’s help.”
It’s also important that you set behavior expectations for your children. “If you continue to repeat your expectations and model empathetic behavior, then it will get instilled in your child,” says Dr. Borba.
The truth is, talking about bullying is uncomfortable when your child is the aggressor. However, in order to make real change, you need to start with being really honest about how well you and your child work with others.
No mom or dad wants to imagine their wonderful son or daughter hurting others. With these tips, you don’t have to. Instead, you can accept your responsibility as a parent to be vigilant of your child’s behavior, to promote teamwork and empathy in extracurricular activities and at home, and to learn how to treat people kindly together.
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