Dear Dr. Debbie,
In the carpool on the way home from school, I overheard the children talking about a bully. They’re in third grade. When I tried to get more information out of my daughter later at dinner, she shrugged it off. I don’t know the child they were talking about, so I obviously can’t approach her parents. Should I tell the teacher? It seems wrong to do nothing.
Not (Yet) Involved
Don’t miss last week’s column Snooping on your kid’s digital devices — Good Parenting
Yes. Adults should take bullying as seriously as we do other threats to children’s wellbeing. An insult or cruel prank not only hurts the victim, but continual patterns of bullies and victims are detrimental to everyone. Both bullies and their victims risk long term effects when adults do not intervene to prevent further bullying. Michael Turner, a psychologist with the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte analyzed data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. He found that victims as well as bullies were more likely to be involved later in drug abuse and criminal activity than were children who were neither bullied nor bullies. Interestingly, girls who had been continuously bullied were more likely to be involved with drugs and the legal system than were boys who had been continuously bullied.
Eyes and Ears
Adults must watch for bullying since, as you noticed, it is often difficult for a child to share experiences — as observers or victims — with an adult. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “Stop Bullying” website recommends that parents look for changes in behavior, missing valuables and or physical bruises as possible evidence. A reluctance to go to school or to an after school activity is another red flag.
Show interest in your child’s social life. After about age 7, children tend to forget that grownups can be resourceful allies for their problems (and we may forget that they still need us). Be that adult who knows about, and cares about, what is going on. Use nonjudgmental language rather than labeling a child or his behavior as “bad” or “mean.” Your child may be more likely to open up if she doesn’t have to worry about getting someone in trouble or facing repercussions for “squealing.” It is also hard for anyone to admit that they themselves were victimized.
Helplessness and guilt are common feelings for a victim.
Children need to be reassured, by our words and our actions, that adults can and will work together to help all the children. Encourage your daughter’s natural instinct to support a victim through listening and consoling. Victims are sometimes those who do not have friends, so a budding friendship with your child may be the end to the trouble. Likewise, if she doesn’t feel threatened herself, your daughter might offer the bully an ear and possibly help to uncover some of the root causes of the bullying (maybe family dysfunction for the bully and “annoying” traits of the victim).
It might be that the child who takes lunch money from other children is poor and hungry. He should not be facing this issue on his own. The child who is perpetually bullied may have a learning disability, speech disorder, physical disability or other difference that hasn’t been adequately acknowledged or addressed by the grownups. A bully or a victim may need help to discover talents so as to build self confidence and dissolve the dysfunctional dynamic of feeling inferior. A school guidance counselor can work with the teacher or directly with students to enhance tolerance and kindness among all classmates. You and your daughter could approach the counselor together to ask for help in making school feel like a safe place for everyone.
Sometimes what is perceived as bullying is merely a deficiency in social skills. Do the children in your daughter’s class know how to resolve conflict and treat each other respectfully? See if you and some other parents could serve as recess volunteers. Some play dates with several of your daughter’s classmates could also make a positive change in the social atmosphere of her peers. An effective set of social skills will serve a child well beyond childhood.
Teach the children to recognize their own rising emotions when a conflict occurs and to choose from among several constructive actions:
- Give a well thought out reason for your point of view.
- Listen carefully to the other side.
- Take turns.
- Meet in the middle.
Children with learning disabilities or emotional challenges will need more coaching to read body language and to hear the needs of their playmates. For the more volatile children, specific techniques in anger management will be helpful. These include getting plenty of exercise and ample sleep, taking a deep breath, writing down feelings, walking away and talking out problems long before the adrenaline takes over. And because children learn what we do better than what we say, adults should provide a good example by working things out without abusing power.
Nobody benefits when bullies get away with it.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.