Identify which kind of bullying your child may be experiencing.
Bullying is defined as mean, hurtful behavior that occurs repeatedly in a relationship with an imbalance of power or strength. It takes many forms -- verbal, physical, relational, and cyberbullying. Although schools are doing more to deal with bullying, parents are still the key to empowering kids to prevent and stop it. Here are tips on how to deal with the four common types of bullying.
What It Is: Verbal bullying, or bullying with cruel spoken words, involves ongoing name-calling, threatening, and making disrespectful comments about someone's attributes (appearance, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, etc.).
Example: When a child says to another child, "You're really, really fat, and so is your mom."
How to Spot the Signs: Children may withdraw, become moody, or show a change in appetite. They may tell you something hurtful that someone said about them and ask you if you think it's true.
What to Do: First, teach your kids about respect. Through your own behavior, reinforce how everyone deserves to be treated well -- thank teachers, praise friends, be kind to store employees. Stress self-respect, and help your kids to appreciate their strengths. "The best protection parents can offer is to foster their child's confidence and independence and to be willing to take action when needed," says Shane Jimerson, Ph.D., a school psychologist and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Discuss and practice safe, constructive ways your child can respond to a bully. Brainstorm key phrases to say in a firm but not antagonistic tone, such as "That wasn't nice," "Leave me alone," or "Back off."
What It Is: Physical bullying, or bullying with aggressive physical intimidation, involves repeated hitting, kicking, tripping, blocking, pushing, and touching in unwanted and inappropriate ways.
Example: A child gets his pants pulled down on the playground at lunchtime.
How to Spot the Signs: Many children don't tell their parents when it happens, so watch for possible warning signs like unexplained cuts, scratches or bruises, missing or damaged clothes, or frequent complaints of headaches and stomachaches.
What to Do: If you suspect your child is being physically bullied, start a casual conversation -- ask what's going on at school, during lunch or recess, or on the way home. Based on the responses, ask if anyone's been mean to her. Try to keep your emotions in check. Emphasize the value of open, ongoing communication with you and with teachers or school counselors. Document the dates and times of bullying incidents, the responses from people involved, and the actions that have been taken. Do not contact the parents of the bully (or bullies) to resolve matters on your own. If your child continues to be physically hurt, and you need additional assistance beyond the school, contact local law enforcement. There are local, state, and federal anti-bullying and harassment laws that require prompt corrective action.
What It Is: Relational bullying, or bullying with exclusionary tactics, involves deliberately preventing someone from joining or being part of a group, whether it's at a lunch table, game, sport, or social activity.
Example: A group of girls in dance class keeps talking about a weekend sleepover and sharing pictures, treating the one uninvited child as if she were invisible.
How to Spot the Signs: Watch for mood changes, withdrawal from peer groups, and a shift toward being alone more than usual. Girls are more likely than boys to experience social exclusion, nonverbal, or emotional intimidation. The pain can be as strong as physical bullying and last even longer.
What to Do: Make it a nightly routine to talk with your kids about how their day went, advises Jennifer Cannon, a family therapist in Newport Beach, California. Help them find things that make them happy, point out their positive qualities, and make sure they know there are people who love and care about them. Focus on developing their talents and interests in music, arts, athletics, reading, and after-school activities so your kids build relationships outside of school.
What It Is: Cyberbullying, or bullying in cyberspace, involves haranguing someone by spreading mean words, lies, and false rumors through e-mails, text messages, and social media posts. Sexist, racist, and homophobic messages create a hostile atmosphere, even when not directly targeting your child.
Example: When someone tweets or posts, "Kayden is a total loser. Why is anyone hanging out with him? He's so gay."
How to Spot the Signs: Watch to see if your child spends more time online (visiting social media pages or texting) but appears to be sad and anxious afterward. Even though she's reading painful things on her computer, tablet, or phone, this may be her only social outlet. Also take note if she has trouble sleeping, begs to stay home from school, or withdraws from activities she once loved.
What to Do: Mean messages can be distributed anonymously and quickly, leading to 24/7 cyberbullying, so first establish household rules for Internet safety. Agree on age-appropriate time limits. Know the popular and potentially abusive sites, apps, and digital devices before your kids use them. Let your kids know you will be monitoring their online activities. Tell them that if they experience cyberbullying, they shouldn't engage, respond, or forward it. Instead, they should inform you so you can print out the offending messages, including the dates and times of when they were received. Report cyberbullying to the school and to the online service provider. If the cyberbullying escalates to include threats and sexually explicit messages, also contact local law enforcement.
If your child does approach you about being bullied or about someone else being bullied, be supportive, praise her courage for telling you, and gather information (without getting angry or accusatory). Emphasize the difference between being a tattletale who is just trying to get someone in trouble and talking to an adult who can help. Always take action with bullying, especially if it becomes severe or persistent, by contacting your child's teacher or principal first to monitor the situation until it stops. Visit stopbullying.gov for more information.
Suzanne Peck is filmmaker and author of STAND TALL: Lessons That Teach Respect and Prevent Bullying, www.corwin.com/standtall. She has decades of experience as a teacher, trainer, and mom.