One of the biggest concerns parents have about sending their kiddos off to school is whether their children have the tools and skills to handle peer pressure and bullying. These problems can’t be avoided, unfortunately, and happen in all school settings. Research has shown that bullying negatively affects children socially, emotionally, and academically, whether they’re victims, offenders, or bystanders. Even though you can’t be there to help or protect your child under these circumstances, there are numerous social-emotional skills you can nurture in your children to help them manage these social challenges.
It’s important to understand the difference between peer pressure and bullying. These two behaviors are often confused but are very different. Peer pressure is when one or more people try to get another member of their group to think or act the same way they do. Peer pressure can encourage children to do things they wouldn’t normally consider. On the other hand, peer pressure can have positive effects on children, leading them to work harder in school, try out for a sport or club, or even just complete their homework nightly. Either way, kids adjust their actions to fit in, be part of a group, or impress their peers.
Bullying, on the other hand, is unwanted, ongoing, and aggressive behavior directed toward another person or group. Bullying can be physical, such as hitting, tripping, or spitting. It can be verbal: insults, threats, or taunting. It can be social, as with excluding, spreading rumors, ignoring or embarrassing someone. And now—often among tweens and teens—we must include cyberbullying: social or verbal bullying through social media or messaging. Each of these forms of bullying is harmful to kids and should be addressed immediately.
There are many ways you can prepare your children for these challenges long before they happen, equipping them to navigate them with greater confidence and ease. In this first part of the series, we discuss how you can help your children avoid being bullied and handle it when they are the victim. In Part II, we’ll address how to teach your children to be active bystanders.
Learning assertiveness skills is essential for a bullied child. Being assertive simply means communicating your thoughts and feelings in a clear, respectful, and straightforward way. For some kids, this doesn’t come naturally. It’s important not only to give children some ideas of what to say when they’re feeling bullied but also to give them practice saying it.
Role-playing different scenarios will help give children the confidence to stick up for themselves when they’re bullied. As you use role-play to teach them to say things like “Stop it! I don’t think that’s funny” or “You can think whatever you want,” you can coach them in how to use their voice and body to communicate their message clearly and respectfully. Making eye contact, standing up straight, and being aware of facial expressions and volume and tone of voice can make a huge difference in communicating their message. Some children need lots of practice saying these things to gain the confidence to say them when the time comes. By using their assertiveness skills, they’ll also lower their likelihood of being targeted again.
When they learn problem-solving skills, children will have the capacity to make good choices in a precarious situation. Studies have shown that both kids who bully and those they target tend to lack social problem-solving skills.1 You can teach these skills by approaching challenging situations together, calmly thinking through problems, brainstorming solutions, and encouraging children to evaluate each idea before deciding how to move forward. Here are a few simple steps for problem-solving with children:
Step 1. Listen empathetically and validate children’s thoughts and experiences. Ask them what they want or need. Encourage children to share with you what happened or what their concern is. This might sound like “Why don’t you tell me what happened?” Then repeat or paraphrase what they said: “It sounds like ______.”
Step 2. Ask if they have any ideas about how to solve this problem that are both safe and respectful. Maybe remind them of a time they successfully navigated a similar situation. You can coach them to come up with ideas if they can’t think of some on their own.
Step 3. Help them evaluate what the outcomes might be for each of the ideas they propose. Help them connect the dots by anticipating what might happen if they make a certain choice. Help them evaluate those ideas based on your family’s values.
Step 4. Ask them what they plan to do to make a repair, try again, or try next time.
All children either experience or witness bullying at some point in their childhood. It’s imperative that we talk to them about what bullying is, what their role is when they experience it, and what to do in those situations. Being able to assert themselves and solve problems will allow children to navigate tough situations and avoid future bullying.
Being prepared to be active bystanders is also critically important for children. In the second part of this series, we’ll discuss the most effective way to reduce bullying—by teaching bystanders how to react to a situation.