How Can I Teach My Kid to Stand Up For Themself?

Children who struggle with confidence or have a passive style in social interactions can be at risk for being bullied. Parents can luckily help them through it and here's how.

An illustration of a child standing up against their bullies.
Photo: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

Mom of Bullied Child

My son just turned 6 years old and he’s often bullied and hit by his friends. Though we try a lot, we cannot teach him to stand up for himself. With school being shut for nearly a year now, things are getting more difficult for him despite most of his interactions being virtual, at least that’s what we feel. How can we teach him to protect himself?

—Mom of Bullied Child

Dear Mom of Bullied Child,

One of the most disillusioning parts of parenting is watching how mean children can be, and when it's directed toward our own, it's downright heartbreaking. These peer interactions at young ages do matter for social development in the big picture, so I'm glad you are reaching out and want to take action! Fortunately, you have several ways to approach the problem, and he's at a great age to make some changes.

Understand the Pandemic Problem

An unfortunate consequence of pandemic life for children has been losing opportunities to practice normal social skills. You may be seeing continued problems because he has not been in a typical environment to continue growing these skills more naturally. Although virtual socializing has helped many children stay connected, it is just not the same, and younger children especially seem to struggle with replicating regular interactions. Keep this in mind as you think through other potential steps to take to address the problem. When you feel safe doing so, look for chances to be with peers in person, so he can keep practicing in real life.

Talk to Your Kid About Friendship

One part of your question especially caught my attention: "bullied and hit by his friends." This does not sound like behavior that fits the definition of friendship! As our young children are still wrapping their brains around what friendship means beyond "we both like Legos," you can help your son understand what it means to be a friend. It sounds like he needs to change whom he's spending time with, since I know plenty of children who do not "bully and hit" their friends! A change of peer group may be just what he needs to build his confidence and learn what it feels like to have real friends.

Teach Them Assertiveness Skills

If you are still concerned about your son "learning to protect himself," the first line of intervention to prevent bullying is teaching children assertiveness skills. It's important to distinguish between assertive and aggressive: Assertiveness means standing up for ourselves, while aggressive is directing verbal or physical harm toward someone. The basics of assertiveness include these steps:

  • Tell the offending child to stop: "Stop calling me those names."
  • State your need with an "I" statement: "I don't like when you tease me like that."
  • If the bad behavior continues, leave.

Assertiveness goes beyond the problem interactions by also allowing kids to practice expressing ideas and needs more in all social situations. Your son may need to learn to speak up in general, which will then help him have greater confidence in the more stressful, negative interactions. This can look like sharing his ideas and opinions, asking for what he wants and needs, and saying "No" when he does not want to do something.

Know the Risks for Being Bullied

Another important issue to consider in your son's situation is what might be making him vulnerable to these aggressive interactions. This by no means places blame on him for others' behavior, but we do know that there are characteristics that make some children more vulnerable to bullying, including low confidence and being passive. For more about risks of being bullied, Boston Children's Hospital has this helpful resource.

Reach Out to the School

Your son is at the beginning of the elementary years where social skills are rapidly developing, and the nature of friendships change just as quickly. The interactions now lay the groundwork for years to come, so the more positive they can be, the better for him as he builds confidence and self-esteem in this formative phase of development. Because this is so critical, if your own parent coaching does not seem to be influential enough (not uncommon once children are elementary age), it may be worth it to reach out to the school support staff.

It has been demonstrated in bullying research that the strongest predictor of less bullying is not changing individuals' behaviors, but addressing the school and community culture. Reach out to the school and see what social and emotional curriculum they provide (most do nowadays), and who a good point person is to observe your son and give him extra support.

Offer the Right Support

Social skills groups can also be key for children with social struggles to learn and practice effective skills. Again, many schools offer these, or you can look at what may be available in your community. Just make sure that the group you find targets assertiveness and friendship skills, since there are some different types of groups with the same umbrella of "social skills."

Finally, if these interventions don't help as much as you would like, or if you think it would be good for your son to have even more support, you could have him evaluated by a child mental health professional. Although it is less common for children this young to be depressed, it is possible, and negative peer interactions can contribute to and result from a child's low self-esteem in a harmful loop. If there are mood and self-esteem concerns underlying problems with peers, these are best addressed in individual therapy.

The Bottom Line

We may think social skills should develop naturally, but children often need support and guidance from adults, especially in situations that involve bullying. With a child your son's age, he has plenty of time to build skills to not only gain confidence, but better friends. He also has the huge benefit of devoted and observant parents who want to help him figure out this tough phase, which means he is much more likely to get what he needs to speak up, protect himself, and socially succeed.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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