Help your child become bully-proof

Bullying is systematic and ongoing, with the intention of making the other child feel afraid or affecting their self-esteem. Here's how you can give your child the support and tools she needs to become bully-proof. By Marianne McDonald

Studies from the National Institute of Health in the US have shown anyone involved in bullying, whether they’re the aggressor or on the receiving end, is at an increased risk of depression later in life, along with a host of other social and emotional issues. But there are ways to preempt these situations for your child from a young age, and minimise the effects if she’s already experiencing them – the same applies whether your little one is dealing with physical (hitting and pushing) or emotional (name-calling and being excluded by peers) bullying.

Cristine Scolari, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, explains, “The minute children are interacting with each other, there’s a chance of bullying occurring. However, it’s only when they have the ability to know the difference between desirable and undesirable behavior, and to understand the consequences of their actions, that we can say for certain that the specific behaviour of bullying has occurred.” This happens from the age of about six years, but there are opportunities to give your child coping skills from a young age that will see her through to adulthood.

ALSO SEE: 3 steps to tackle bullying at nursery school

Bernadine Shaw, principal and owner of FasTracKids in Johannesburg, explains it’s essential to teach children sympathy and empathy from a young age, since they’re often exposed to, and mimic, behavior in situations where the parent isn’t always in control. “Every child has a story and a history of experiences. Some experiences trigger this type of behaviour. It could be learnt or copied from TV or family interactions, but it could also be that the child is feeling angry or frustrated and doesn’t have the necessary coping skills to manage the output.”

ALSO SEE: 4 ways to teach your children empathy

When he’s being bullied

Based on a wide range of research on the topic, Psychology Today outlines four main reasons your child could fall victim to a bully:

  1. Difference: For younger children, this could include something as seemingly innocuous as having red hair or freckles. For older children, it could include learning difficulties or having two dads − the possibilities are endless, because each child is unique.
  2. Competence: If your child is particularly good at something, this can put him on the bully’s radar, who will perceive him to be competition that needs to be quashed.
  3. Amenability: If your little one is particularly eager to please others and is cooperative, bullies will take advantage of this, because he’ll be less likely to fight back or report the behaviour to an adult.
  4. Being alone: Children who are quiet or “loners” are more likely to be bullied. The more friends they have and the bigger their perceived support network, the less likely it is to happen.

Point four is particularly important when bully-proofing your child and, unlike the first three points, is something within your control as a parent. One study out of North Carolina State University in the US and published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence has found a strong correlation between perceived family support and cohesion and a child’s likelihood to not only stand up to his bully and report the behaviour to an adult, but to intervene should he witness bullying. Peer-to-peer intervention has been shown to be one of the most effective, yet rare, antidotes to bullying.

Bernadine explains emotional support is an essential part of helping your child if he’s being bullied. “Open the conversation by telling your child about your day first and then allowing him to have a turn. Talk to him and encourage positive affirmations to help build his belief in himself.”

ALSO SEE: Signs of depression, stress and anxiety in children

When your child is the bully

Cristine says if you have a suspicion your child is the bully, or if there have been accusations of this behaviour, look out for the following red flags:

  • Aggressive behaviour at home, such as bullying or intimidating a sibling, or being deliberately mean and nasty.
  • Showing no remorse when he hurts someone.
  • Frequent complaints from your child that others are calling him a bully or telling him he’s “being ugly”.
  • Frequently getting into trouble at school for aggressive behaviour and never acknowledging he is at fault.
  • A child who is generally frustrated or impulsive with a “short fuse”.

Bernadine recommends implementing firm boundaries and a routine for your child. It’s essential parents explain consequences clearly so they understand how their behaviour is affecting others.”

Cristine agrees, saying while the child’s feelings must be acknowledged, they must be told the reaction they had to that feeling was not appropriate. “For example, say, ‘It’s OK to feel angry, but you can’t hit others.’ Be firm that certain behaviour is not acceptable – even if he feels extremely angry. Acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes and encourage him not to react aggressively next time.”
Cristine encourages teachers and parents to be aware that these behaviours can also be caused by an underlying, undiagnosed medical condition or sensory integration difficulties. If you suspect this is the case, contact your paediatrician who will guide you in the right direction.

Working as a team

As your child will be spending a significant amount of time at school, and as this is often where bullying occurs, regular feedback between teachers and parents is essential.
As an educator, Bernadine believes in the importance of teachers being proactive through classroom interventions like sticker charts, positive affirmations and a flexible classroom environment that allows children to retreat for quiet time, such as tents or reading corners.

Practical exercises

It’s often easier to explain abstract concepts to younger children through practical examples. Bernadine has some great ideas to illustrate the emotional impact that bullying can have:

  • Take a piece of paper and let your child crumple it into a ball. Now ask him to open it up and see if he can make it smooth like it was before. The piece of paper can never go back to the way it was before, which will show your child that what we do and say to others have lasting effects.
  • Let your little one throw an apple on the floor so it bruises. Now cut it open to show how there is a bruise on the inside, but the skin looks fine. This will help your child understand that even when things seem OK on the outside, they do have the power to hurt others, and be hurt.
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