BY JAMIE LOBER
Defending yourself doesn’t always mean you have to learn martial arts. One of the most purposeful missions your child may complete is finding a middle ground between the need for independence and social backing. “Bullying occurs at all ages, with name calling and hitting in early stages and becoming more sophisticated and targeted like girls ostracizing and keeping people out of a group. Bullying happens in environments where people don’t respect differences,” explains Dr. Deborah Moore-Sanders, lead psychologist for Houston County Schools. You cannot accept this as normal and part of growing up, as it can have a negative outcome on self-esteem. As a parent, it is instrumental that you support your child as he develops emotionally, mentally, and socially. You must accept him whether he is the victim, the bully, or both.
Yes, both. “Bullies may often be former victims who have learned to bully,” Barbara Newton of Southern Behavioral Services tells us. You can help your child create a positive self-concept that assures him he does not need to feel disturbed or emotionally hurt by the bullies. If you are not sure if your child may be affected, pay attention to how he acts. “Look for any kind of significant change in behavior such as coming home and slamming the door. If your child is upset or comes home and slams the door. Have open communication to your child and ask what happened in school, so if something happened your child will more readily be able to tell you,” recommends Roselle Holcombe, LPC of Burke Elementary School.
If your child is submissive, prefers to spend his time with a few friends, is of a minority race or religion, is overweight, has freckles, is a poor student, is thought to be gay or lesbian, and/or is easily intimidated, he is probably going to be victimized sometime. A child can be vulnerable for any trait that makes him stand out, whether it is height, academic ability, or disability. It is important to let your child know that his school does not tolerate bullying, and it is critical to report it to a teacher, counselor or other adult. He will need your encouragement to do this as “your child may feel embarrassed, ashamed, and often believe that what the bully says is true. Make sure he knows that the bully is really not very powerful and that is why he bullies,” explains Newton. Offering positive support will raise his self-esteem and make him stand up to the bully. You must inform your child that the bully wants to incite a response and that something as simple as saying “leave me alone” or not responding at all may have a surprising, good outcome. Eventually, the bully will figure that your child is not affected and will find someone else who may be.
If you feel your child may be the bully, he is trying to satisfy his overriding need for power. As a result, he insults or makes other feel bad in order for him to feel better. Your child may bully others with hurtful words or aggressive actions. Do not ignore this behavior and realize that it has been predicted that one out of every four bullies is going to have a criminal record by age thirty. Sandra McGowan of Houston County Juvenile Court explains that “bullies may have to go through mediation or be brought through the court system. They may be placed on probation or deferred deposition for up to 12 months, depending on their circumstances and history.” You don’t want this to happen to your child, so it is important that you confront the issue instead of denying its occurrence. It should be expected that your child will pretend he has been victimized or accuse the victim of bullying him in return. Instead of trying to figure out who has bullied who, figure out the cause. This may require talking to a counselor or teacher.
Compliment your child when you catch him helping others. Make sure he is developing healthy friendships and resolving conflicts appropriately. Be sure his friends stand by him for the right reasons, and not out of the fear that they may be bullied for befriending another child.
Georgia schools are addressing the issue of bullying. Counselors of Warner Robins Middle School speak of the Second Step program, describing it as a “preventative program set up specifically to deal with interpersonal relationships among students, the effects of bullying, and how to maintain a healthy school environment.” Children are taught how to be safe, stay in numbers, have good, assertive body language, use verbal language in a way that doesn’t make them look like a victim and talk about what it means to be a bully. Georgia law mandates “the implementation of a character education program at all grade levels that is to include methods of discouraging bullying and violent acts against fellow students. (H.B. 84, Chap. 282).
Lastly, no matter what your circumstance may be, remember to lead by example by showing you can manage your emotions. Practice at home what the Second Step program teaches in school. “Do a lot of role playing and practicing of social skills, empathy training, emotion management, and problem solving at home, and show your child the right kind of modeling. What he sees on television and movies is the wrong kind,” says Paul Midkiff, upper school guidance counselor at Mount de Sales. You may want to limit the amount of time he spends playing video games that demonstrate aggression or those that reward him for acting violently. Speak up when your child is not behaving appropriately but do not resort to name calling, harsh discipline, or bullying yourself. Be sure you are practicing what you preach. Follow the empowering signs found at Feagin Mill Middle school like Kindness Quarter, Self-control Summit, Cooperative Causeway, and Fairness Fairway and the powerful message of their principal who talks about a different character trait over the intercom each week. Get involved as a family in community organizations that promote friendship, wellness, cooperation, and responsibility. Most of all, remember that you are not alone. Once a bully does not mean always a bully. As a parent, it is your task to take control and help your child adopt healthy behavior.