When Bullies Strike: An opportunity to teach your child strength and compassion
by Kerrie Saunders, Ph.D.
There may be a time when your child encounters bullying behavior — it’s when a behavior goes beyond good-natured and occasional joking. The hurt can be in the form of verbal abuse (inflicted through words, such as name calling or taunting) or in the form of physical abuse (kicking, shoving, fighting, and taking property). Perhaps an even more damaging form occurs when there is an attempt to socially isolate a child. The behaviors usually occur repeatedly and/or over an extended period of time.
Many adults will tend to focus their energy on the bully’s inability to celebrate, or simply co-exist with diversity. We wonder what s/he may have against a certain belief, faith, financial state, size, shape, color, or other trait of a child, and often go to great lengths to discipline and/or re-educate the bully. Psychologists tell us that bullying behavior is learned early on, and that these children typically grew up in a home where you were either a bully or a victim. There often is no mutual respect or sense of healthy boundaries for these individuals. That is why they truly need intervention, and the earlier, the better.
That being said, I think we almost always miss the other opportunity before us, as guiding adults. This is our chance to use an experiential ‘life-lesson’ while our child is still living safely with us at home. Children who are bullied for any reason, including being vegan, will experience similar thoughts and feelings. Embarrassment, shame, fear, anger, and anxiety, a mix which usually tends to ‘turn up the volume’ on the natural desire to fit in and be liked.
Since children will often hesitate to tell you they are being bullied, here are some signs that may suggest your child is having trouble with a bully. If your child:
- Comes home with cuts and bruises, damaged school materials, or dirty and/or torn clothes
- Frequently loses possessions
- Appears afraid, depressed, or moody
- Often cries before going to sleep
- Feels ill in the morning to avoid going to go school (or sports practice, clubs, Scouts, etc.)
- Loses interest in school work or other previously enjoyed activities
- Becomes quiet, passive, withdrawn, or anxious
The best way to open the lines of communication between you and your child, is to encourage him or her to share feelings by assuring that you will help and support them in solving any problem. I do not advise that you promise to keep every issue a secret. There is a chance that you will, in fact, need to go further with some concerns, and you want to maintain your child’s trust in your word at all times. Rather, continuously reassure your child of your support and assistance in helping to work out problems that may come up in life. Ask about school, activities, hobbies, and other kids, encouraging your child to talk with you anytime. Not only does this strengthen your bond, it may also help you to identify problems.
The overall best strategy is to teach your kids ways of avoiding an encounter with a bully. This is not cowardice, but wisdom. Avoiding aggression with an individual not yet enlightened with compassion just makes common sense. Here are some tips to teach your child to try to allay the situation:
- Avoid the places and situations frequented by the bully. Do not be alone where the bully can pick on you.
- Explain to your child that people who grew up in homes with hitting and yelling often mimic what they saw. Let your child know that bullies are deep down actually hurting or lonely, though they may seem on the outside to be confident. This should be in the form of an explanation, not an excuse for the bully behavior.
- Enlist a friend or older sibling to help. Bullies have a harder time picking on a person if someone else is around.
- Try not to show a reaction; bullies like reactions like crying, so try to ignore them.
- Say Stop! or No! and walk away.
- Get away fast if it gets physical.
- If you suspect your child is being bullied, immediately alert the teacher or caregiver so that the situation can be monitored for safety’s sake.
- Keep talking with and listening to your child.
Your child’s safety and freedom are both important issues. S/he has a constitutional right to a free public education, no matter what. The American Civil Liberties Union website says, “…hate speech stops being just speech and becomes conduct when it targets a particular individual, and when it forms a pattern of behavior that interferes with a student’s ability to exercise his or her right to participate fully in education.” If you continue having problems in school after speaking to a teacher, principal, and superintendent, consider a lawyer for legal consultation.