There has always been the bully on the playground — now, the difference is there are multiple bullies vying to make children’s lives miserable.
Dr. Ray Guarendi, clinical psychologist and Register columnist, observes: "The irony in this is our culture says, ‘Oh, isn’t that awful! Look what happened; these kids are mistreating other kids! How does that happen?We have to have programs!’ They’re chasing the wrong causes. As long as the family continues to deteriorate, as long as God is pushed aside, you’re going to have more aggressive treatment of everybody — not just kids."
So, the question remains: What can concerned parents do to protect their children from bullies — and prevent them from becoming bullies?
Bully Protection 101
If your child is in a peer group, it’s only a matter of time before he gets bullied. It’s important for parents to recognize the signs because a child who has been browbeaten won’t always confide in his parents. Joseph White, author of the pamphlet Catholic Parent Know-How: Bullying, What Parents Can Do, says parents should be on the lookout for bullying when they observe their child wanting to avoid school or an activity enjoyed formerly. A sharp decline in academic performance, low self-esteem or negative self-statements, as well as unexplained scrapes and bruises are also signs. If parents suspect their child is being harassed, but the child is too ashamed to admit it, he suggests asking indirect questions to flesh out the problem, such as: "Is there anybody in your class who picks on other people a lot?"
Both experts advise instructing children on how to avoid provoking a bully. Parents can teach bully-resistance skills such as ignoring teasing or deflecting it by using humor, White says. If your child is being mocked, "Tell your child to blow him off," advocates Guarendi. "You have to give them that advice even though they may not be able to follow it out; you have to start them on that path. Because if you don’t, then they’re just going to be harassed any time, any place." To help make their child less of a target, White recommends that parents practice effective eye contact, confident posture and problem-solving skills. If the problem is happening on the bus, then they can instruct him or her where to sit in order to avoid the bully.
The majority of bullying behavior consists of being mocked and excluded. While this kind of bullying is not usually life-threatening, it can make a child’s life miserable. As Guarendi says, "Girls are much more prone to form social alliances and cliques. They exclude a girl for their own peculiar reasons — ‘I don’t like the fact that she’s tall.’" Parents need to help their daughters realize that they don’t have to have the approval of every kid, he notes. Having just a few good friends is all any child needs.
How to Stop the Bully
Should you advise your child to fight back physically? "Yes, you have to defend yourself. But if the kid is a lot bigger than you, then you have to think twice," Guarendi advises. He thinks there is a misconception perpetuated that all bullies are weak. "Some bullies will beat the heck out of you. It’s a judgment call."
White agrees that it is okay for a child to protect himself, but in most cases, there’s an adult close by who can help intervene. He says fighting back sometimes confuses the situation and the innocent child gets wrongly accused of being the bully. "A general rule might be that if someone is hurting you, do what you need to do to get away and then get help from an adult." If the situation gets too aggressive for the adolescent to deal with alone, a parent can usually stop a bully by quietly going to the authorities.
At the heart of bullying behavior is a lack of empathy. Laraine Bennett, who co-authored a book with her husband, Art Bennett, called The Temperament God Gave Your Kids: Motivate, Discipline and Love Your Children (recently reviewed in the Register), advises parents to begin helping their children attain the virtue of empathy when they’re little. "Even toddlers can learn to use ‘gentle touching’ when holding a baby or touching a flower. When they’re older, you can ask questions like: ‘How do you think he feels when you said that he was stupid?’ or ‘Why do you think that old man is so grumpy?’"
White recommends parents instill kindness in their children through their own actions: "Take the time necessary to establish a quality relationship with your child. Do kind things for others together, and show your children that you understand and respect their feelings as well."
Bennett agrees that parents should do activities with their children that reinforce empathetic understanding. For example, she suggests preparing and delivering a meal to a new parent, baking cookies for a neighbor who is sick, visiting someone in the nursing home or inviting a lonely child over to play.
Bennett stresses the importance of parents developing a relationship with their children, which fosters discussing problems and personal issues. If a child is able to address his problems with the support of his family, then he will be less prone to bully or be a victim of bullying.
Another way parents can help their children is through prayer. Ask God and the Holy Spirit to endow you with the natural and supernatural virtues necessary for good parenting. "Prayer, talking to God, helps with communication with our children, and it also opens our own hearts to assist our children in empathy," she explains.
Guarendi believes an attitude of kindness and empathy comes with stable parenting and instilling morality in children. "If you raise a kid in a loving home who is well-disciplined and knows that he is cared for and has dignity, then that kindness and empathy is going to grow as a natural byproduct."
Never Allow Mistreatment
Guarendi counsels parents to take a strong stand on not mistreating others. Learning to treat others kindly begins in the home with one’s parents and siblings. A hard line needs to be taken when it comes to the mistreatment of siblings. This means doling out punishment, such as loss of privileges, for name-calling, antagonizing behavior and hitting. "The experts have convinced parents that [mean behavior] is sibling rivalry and children do that because that is just the way they are. Well, that’s irrelevant," he says. "The way children are may not be good. No: That’s like saying guys get into pornography — that’s the way they are. It doesn’t mean it’s good."
Children need to be taught that mistreating others outside the home is equally unacceptable and will have consequences. As White suggests, "Plan with your child how to make sure he or she has a reputation for kind behavior towards others."
Lori Chaplin writes from Idaho.
A lot of bullying, especially to girls, happens online. The website StopCyberBullying.org recommends that when a child is being cyber-bullied, she do the following:
Stop: Take a minute to calm down, so as not to respond in anger, which could escalate the problem.
Block: Use the email and or social-networking site’s blocking features to prevent the cyber bully from further communications.
Tell: Alert an adult who can help with the problem and make the appropriate reports of abuse to the site administrators.
The Child Most Likely to Be Bullied
Experts on the theory of four classical Greek temperaments, Art and Laraine Bennett believe that it’s the child with the melancholic temperament (cautious, sensitive, artistic, introverted and prone to be dreamy) who’s most likely to "come under the sway of bullies or be bullied themselves."
The introverted melancholic is more apt to be a sideline observer until she feels comfortable enough to participate; she gravitates towards peaceful environments away from the rambunctious playground, and she may be less athletically inclined or somewhat awkward. "This child can be an easy target for the playground bully or the ‘mean girls’ who are looking for a scapegoat," say the Bennetts. "Compounding the problem is that the sensitive introvert (whether melancholic or phlegmatic) is more likely to give in to the bully’s demands, thus further perpetuating the bullying behavior."
So You Raised a Bully?
Even if parents are doing all the right things to raise an empathetic child, the impact of the prevailing "mean kid" culture may dominate. Dr. Ray Guarendi warns parents that a child is not a lump of clay; they cannot shape their child into anything they want him or her to be: "I think that is a big problem with an awful lot of Catholic parenting. They’ve got this idea that if I do all of the spiritually correct things (pray the Rosary every day; go to confession every two weeks; home school, etc.), then they’ll be guaranteed a moral child."