Friday, June 22nd, 2012
By now, you’ve probably heard about (or seen) the viral video which captured a group of junior high school boys relentlessly taunting a 68-year-old grandmother who was performing her duties as a school bus monitor. The excerpts (some of which you can see here) are beyond disturbing – vicious, non-stop insults (and threats) were hurled her way for what was reported to be at least 14 minutes. Other aspects of the story continue to unfold, including apologies from a dad of one of the boys, and a fundraising campaign that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the victim. But the point of this blog post is not to cover all these emerging details – rather it’s to step back and ask the question every parent should consider after hearing this story:
How can I make sure my child does not engage in bullying?
Although the simple (and good) answer is to teach your child, from a very young age, to respect others and practice kindness, the reality is that the tween and teen years can be volatile for lots of kids. Parents need to step up their efforts in many ways to be informed about their kid’s social and emotional development as well as their social circles. To get at this from a clinical perspective, I’ve reached out to Dr. Steven G. Dickstein of the Child Mind Institute, who offered the following perspective and 8 very real tips for parents:
Although it’s difficult to accept or understand that your child could be a bully, it’s a reality. Happily, it is one that you can work to prevent. Some tips:
- Communication. If your child is open with you about his thoughts and feelings, it is easier for you to notice if something isn’t right. To encourage this, you need to be open yourself. Having a clear line of communication also allows you to explain concretely your expectations for behavior. No matter the age, kids like to please—even if they don’t show it.
- Take bullying seriously. If you don’t downplay bullying behavior as just “boys being boys,” then your child will understand that not only is it unacceptable—it can also cause real harm.
- Teach kids how to react. A child who knows the best response to the bullying behavior of others—stand with the bullied child, not idly by; alert an adult—is far less likely to engage in bullying behavior themselves.
- Don’t minimize life at school. School is tough for kids; they’re getting the hang of being part of an expanded social universe. This is as true in kindergarten as it is in high school. So taking an interest and being compassionate when your child is troubled shows them a constructive outlet for their feelings, whether they are anger, sadness, or frustration.
- Introduce kids to peer pressure. The seemingly limitless power of peer pressure is illustrated by the helplessness we feel when we face it. “If everyone jumped off a bridge…” is a pretty lame comeback. Still, parents have to keep making the point. Some children may feel pressure to participate in bullying behavior in order to fit in with peers or to avoid being bullied themselves. Let them know that the easy way out isn’t always the right way.
- Be aware. For younger kids, know what your child is doing in and out of school, and make certain that adequate adult supervision is present in every situation. For tweens and teens, know their peer group. In many ways you’ve turned over the rearing of your child to his or her friends by that age—so try to make sure they are teaching what you would—well, within reason.
- Create an anti-bullying environment. Bullies can be the alphas in cliques, or they can be loners on the edges of the social scene. Giving your child opportunities to learn the social ropes and avoid being overly dominant or disconnected is key. So—team sports, theater, art classes, music. If a child learns to play well with others early, and continues through adolescence, he or she will have learned a lifelong skill—and hopefully avoided the bully trap.
- Work together with the school. Too often, parents and teachers can have a contentious relationship because communication is lacking. Building a collaborative relationship means you can focus not on a “he said, she said” back-and-forth, but on the child, where everyone’s attentions belong. Teachers are with your child for the majority of the day; together, you can better help a child make the right decisions.
From a research perspective, I would reinforce the idea that there can be a “social contagion” as kids get older – especially in the tween and teen years. Sometimes goofing around and teasing (which can be perfectly normal behavior) can spin out of control when a group of kids get together – even a group of “nice” kids. (Trust me, if you spend a lot of time around tweens and teens, you will see this happen). These kinds of moments (if you witness them) are important opportunities to set boundaries and make sure kids connect what they say to how others feel – and to convey that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. If you send that message strongly enough, and frequently enough, you can help your kid know how to respond when they are around overtly bullying behavior (such as the sickening school bus incident), and also give them the social and emotional knowledge to know how to put on the brakes when they might be crossing the threshold into bullying behavior themselves.