By Christine Rushford
The kids are back to school now and along with new classes and new teachers, is the not so new issue of bullying. As a parent, it’s difficult to know how to help our children navigate this social territory with their emotional health intact. There is no shortage of evidence that chronic bullying can lead to anxiety and depression for the victims and a lifetime of dysfunctional interpersonal relationships for the perpetrators. Whether you are worried about your child being a bully or the victim of one, these tips can help:
Teach assertiveness skills at a very young age. If your toddler throws a fit over the red cup vs. the blue cup, empathize with his frustration and teach him the feeling words that go along with what he doesn’t like. “I know you are so angry that you don’t have the blue cup this morning. I get angry sometimes too! Would you like to help me pour the juice into your cup?” If your toddler is told he is not allowed to be angry, sad, etc., as he gets older, those natural emotions will be either internalized or externalized in a negative manner. A toddler who can say that he is angry over a cup, will lead to a middle schooler who can verbalize that he is angry when a friend “roasts” him in a group setting.
Allow your child to have personal boundaries. Everyone has a right to voice when they are uncomfortable with someone being in their space and kids are no different. If your seven-year old daughter doesn’t like to kiss Uncle Frank when he comes to visit, respect her assertiveness when she declines. If Uncle Frank has his feelings hurt, state in front of your daughter “We are so proud of Janie for speaking up when she feels uncomfortable. I know you understand the importance of teaching her this skill.” Uncle Frank is sure to get behind an important life lesson and put his hurt feelings on the back burner.
Those are the early life skills to teach your child, but what do you do if your child is the victim of bullying at school or online now? Allowing your child to vent and express his emotions about the way he is being treated without judgement or advice from you is critical. Ask him how he would like to proceed—does he want you to talk to the teacher or school principal? If he adamantly declines, listen to what he is saying. Focus your intention on role playing various responses to real life situations your child is facing. This will empower him and allow him to feel competent in the moment when he is facing a bully.
It would be impossible in this day and age to talk about bullying without talking about social media and technology. Our kids are dealing with 24-hour access to their peers and the opinions of those peers. Monitor what your children are doing on their devices. If they seem sad or withdrawn after engaging in social media, consider implementing more stringent restrictions to use. Talk to your kids about the negative effect you are noticing and explain that this is not a punishment, but a way to enhance their mental health.
Finally, be sure to have an extracurricular outlet for your child. If getting through the school day is socially difficult, find an activity or interest that can be a welcome relief for him. Ideally, the activity would involve other kids that he gets along with well. Extracurricular activities allow for alternate social outlets, a diversion from social media and an opportunity to build self-confidence. All of this can help to counterbalance a rough day with a relentless tormentor at school.
We must empower our children to stand up for themselves in an assertive, not aggressive, manner. Providing non-judgmental, listening combined with empowering tools is a great step towards that goal.
Christine Rushford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, with a focus on working with children, adolescents, parents and couples at Coastal Counseling in Destin.