Ask an Expert: What Are Effective Ways to Help Kids Deal With Bullies?
At some point, your child is bound to encounter a bully—whether they're the target or they see someone else experiencing it. Today, bullying doesn't always come in the form of schoolyard teasing or fighting, but also cyberbullying, rumor-spreading, and exclusion.
Novea McIntosh, Ed.D., assistant professor of education at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and committee member for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, explains how to encourage your child to open up about bullying, and how to help him or her develop
problem-solving and critical-thinking skills from the experience.
Q: First of all, how do you decipher between unkind behavior and actual bullying?
A: For me, the difference is the social and emotional impact on students. When someone is unkind, you can often correct it immediately and the child forgives it right away. They might say, “Oh yea, that happened, but it’s OK now.” But bullying is long-term and leaves a very lasting mark on a child’s life, and it’s something that they think about far longer than someone being unkind. It often takes a while for a student to actually share that they’re being bullied. That being said, if intentional unkind behavior is allowed to continue, it can escalate to bullying.
Q: Are there certain forms of bullying people don’t often consider?
A: Absolutely. Bullying can be very different nowadays because of social media, and sometimes students are victims of bullying such as rumor-spreading—but don’t learn about it until after many other people have. Today, kids' social lives are often so removed from parents and teachers because of social media, and we’re not aware of what’s going on. Even the most open kids can leave out details about certain situations.
Q: As a parent, how can you encourage your kids to be open about what they’re experiencing at school or online?
A: I have a 12-year-old child, and I think one of the best things that ever happened with us is what I call reciprocal vulnerability—and I’ve also seen its benefits in the field of education. Basically, you think to yourself, “How can I share things that have happened to me or people I know that my child might connect with?” My child might respond with, “Oh, Mom, that happened to me too,” or “Oh yea, that happened to my friends in the past.” You make them understand that you’re human too, and explain how you resolved a certain situation. That will often help kids open up, even those who talk about everything except what’s bothering them.
Q: When a parent hears about a bullying situation, their first response might be to go to the teacher or the parents of the bully. Is this the right reaction, and what else can parents do in this situation?
A: I think it depends on the situation and its severity. As a parent, I want my child to trust me first and foremost, so I always tell the parent to move away from “Let’s go tell your teacher!” or “I’ll handle this for you.” Sometimes, I think we need to sit down and engage our kids in conversations about our own values and how we approach things so that we can help them with their own problem-solving skills first. Like I said, it of course depends on how severe the situation is, but we need to help our children embrace their own productive struggles—and in doing so, we’re helping them with a lot of character-building skills. The goal is to never just to put a bandage on the cut. Instead, it’s to talk through the situation, help our child weigh exactly what’s going on, and help them find ways to resolve it before it reaches the next level. What’s more, letting the child have a choice in how things move forward will help them become self-directed learners and independent thinkers. That way, they feel like they were the catalyst in helping to resolve the decision, and that’s important for empowering our young people.
Q: How can parents talk to their kids about cyberbullies?
A: I think the biggest thing is to open up and tell your children, especially as they enter middle school and high school, the truth about what’s out there, how cruel people can be on the Internet, and what to anticipate. The next step I think is simply monitoring your children’s activity and movement. Sometimes as parents, we believe our children are old enough to be responsible for whatever they do on the Internet. But I believe that it still needs to be monitored even through high school, because developmentally they’re not there yet. And overall, encourage breaks from the Internet—give them a chance to explore it, but not exploit it.
Q: If your child has been bullied, and you feel like you’ve resolved the problem, what can you do next as a parent?
A: I think it’s something you can revisit occasionally. Kids are going to learn more about conflict as they read books, watch movies, and interact with others. Books like Malty the Blue Tiger are amazing because they stress that one size does not fit all when it comes to these situations. Together, discuss the experiences they’ve have and how they can use them to navigate their life now. How they resolve these bullying experiences will build their character in the future.