October is National Bullying Prevention Month. As a kid you may have identified with being a target, aggressor or bystander. Times have certainly changed, however, and mistreatment behavior looks different and can feel more intense at earlier ages.
There is a big difference between making poor choices, engaging in mean behavior, and ultimately mistreating someone due to an imbalance of power. As parents, caregivers and educators we have the grand responsibility to not only keep our kids physically and emotionally safe, but also to teach them how to be caring and resilient. Have you ever wondered how you can appropriately support your kids as a parent, caregiver or educator? This article will provide you with knowledge and tips you can use to help your kids!
MISTREATMENT vs BULLYING
Although some may say it is just semantics, the connotation that the words “mistreatment” and “bullying” carry is very different. When we think of “bullies” we think of the big kid who pushes others around and takes their lunch money. However, there are different types of bullying behavior which do not all involve the big kid being physically aggressive toward others. Using the word “bully” generally brings one type of behavior to mind. Furthermore, it may pigeonhole kids to believing they are “the bad kid” if they are being described as the bully, or the “helpless victim” if they are being described as the target. Due to this I have replaced the word “bullying” and “bully” with “mistreatment” and “mistreater.” A child who engages in mean behavior makes poor choices and may mistreat another child, but they may not necessarily be a bully. Think of a day you may have been in a bad mood and may have “snapped” at a colleague or loved one. Does that make you a bully? On the other hand, think of someone who makes fun of others at the person’s expense and continues to do so repeatedly because of their status. The imbalance of power qualifies that action as bullying.
TIPS TO HELP KIDS NOT BE THE TARGET [the bullied]
Having one conversation about bullying the day before middle school is as effective as having the conversation about “the birds and the bees” the day before kids go off to college. Before discussing mean vs. nice, kids have to be uplifted and have confidence instilled in them from the time they are infants. Kids must know the people around them - including their family and teachers - acknowledge and care for them. If kids feel others have confidence in them, they will slowly begin to believe it for themselves. A confident child secure in their own skin will be less likely to become a target or the “butt of someone’s joke.” And if by chance they are the subject of someone else’s mean behavior, they are more likely to easily brush it off. As parents we can compliment our kids - not only by saying, “Nice work,” but by being specific in what we are complimenting. “I noticed the way you shared your materials with him. That is very kind of you. You should be proud of yourself,” goes a lot further than “Good job.”
TIPS TO HELP KIDS NOT BE THE AGGRESSOR [the bully]
Kids are innately good at heart and want to be liked. Mean behavior is learned behavior, usually from television or what they see in real life. If parents and caregivers speak harshly to one another, a child will learn to use the same language and tone. If children are not redirected when engaging in mean behavior or guided to make better choices, they will continue engaging in the same behavior. It is important from toddler age to show kids to care for others by modeling the type of behavior we expect from them. It is also extremely important to speak to children about the way others feel due to their actions, so they may begin to develop empathy from the time they are toddlers. Also, don’t be afraid to get specific. “That’s not nice” only says so much. On the other hand, “How do you think they felt when you snatched that away from them,” will engage kids in perspective taking, and will make a longer-lasting impression which may lead them to make different choices in the future.
TIPS TO HELP ALL KIDS
When it comes down to it, it’s all about building positive relationships! While it would be great if all kids had a positive relationship with one another, it is absolutely crucial for kids to have positive relationships with at least one adult at home and at school. If kids are connected to an adult whom they feel safe with, they are more likely to report mistreating behavior if they are a bystander, they are more likely to trust in an adult and seek assistance if they are a target, and they are more likely to not want to disappoint adults they have a positive relationship with if they are an aggressor.
Another tip is for kids to be connected to their school or community. While we want to be mindful we do not over-schedule our kids at a young age so they have the opportunity to engage in free play in order to build social skills needed to resolve conflicts on their own, we do want to encourage kids to be involved and connected in at least one activity. Whether it be sports, music, school clubs or having connections to religious organizations, being connected to others will build social skills, will help children feel like they belong to something greater than themselves, and it will give kids a voice. Kids who are connected to others will have fewer chances of experiencing as though they are alone in the world, and are more likely to lean on others for support. Furthermore, if kids are involved with activities they are good at, their self-confidence will increase which will lead them to not be as bothered if someone is being mean towards them.
TIPS FOR SCHOOLS
While parents are ultimately responsible for their kids’ character, we must keep in mind that kids spend more awake time in their schools than they do in their homes. Schools should be taking an active stance of emphasizing, modeling and teaching empathy and kind behavior. Schools should also consistently work on creating and maintaining a positive school culture and climate. When kids make poor choices (because they will inevitably make mistakes!), schools should emphasize how to make better choices the next time. Assigning a 30-minute detention does not “fix” poor behavior. However, teaching kids perspective-taking and helping them build empathy in that time frame will have a greater impact.
It all starts within the four walls of our own homes. Many parents constantly stress the importance of getting good grades. As parents we must be just as diligent in stressing kindness. Being kind not only includes one’s own actions towards another, but it also includes standing up for others if they see unkind behavior taking place. Promoting kindness cannot be the responsibility of the media and schools alone. Let’s remember in the eyes of our youth, we are all public figures; our choices and behavior towards others will always influence their own.
Notice social media was not included? Be sure to keep an eye out for my next blog post detailing all things social media!
I have created a FREE two-page PDF detailing Strategies and Tools on Helping Kids Navigate Bullying. Obtain it by clicking here, or clicking the resource tab on my website.
Counselor De Jesus
Vanessa De Jesus Guzman is a former teacher, school counselor and licensed associate counselor serving children and families in the northern New Jersey area. To learn more visit www.freetobemindful.com.