Children targeted by bullies can develop lifelong problems with depression, anger, trust and/or self-esteem. Unfortunately, parents' well-meaning attempts to help their children often backfire. What you should know…

Likely Targets

Bullying can occur at any age, but it is most common from the sixth to eighth grades. Targets usually are perceived as being somehow different than their peers, often because they have special needs are perceived to be gay... are overweight or have some other distinctive physical characteristic...or are of a different religion or race. Many bullied children are shy and sensitive.

Bullying should be taken seriously even if no physical violence is involved. Repeated insults, malicious rumors, social isolation or "cyberbullying abusive messages texted to a child's cell phone or rumors about the child spread on the Internet) can leave deep psychological scars. In fact, cyberbullying can be even more damaging than conventional schoolyard bullying because it follows targets home, so there is nowhere to feel safe.

Parents of girls should be particularly watchful for "passive bullying,' such as social isolation and the spreading of rumors.

Parents of boys should be aware that boys often are embarrassed to tell their parents that they are being physically bullied or that their possessions are being stolen. Be vigilant for clues, such as frequently ripped clothing...difficult-to-explain bruises...and/or possessions that are "lost" regularly.

Parental Missteps

If parents recommend fighting back physically, their child might be suspended or expelled. Many schools now have zero-tolerance-for-fighting rules that do not consider the context of the fight.

If parents recommend fighting back verbally-perhaps by cutting down the bully with wit-the bullying is likely to increase. When a bully is embarrassed in front of his/her peers, he typically punishes the child who made him look bad in an effort to save face.

If parents instantly demand that the school or the parents of the child who is doing the bullying take care of the problem, the kids will never learn to stand up for themselves. If parental intervention is not what the child wants-many kids fear parents' embarrassing overreactions more than bullies--the bullied child might not even tell the parents about future bullying.

Example: A boy admits to his parents that he is taunted by another student every day-then is mortified when his parents call the student's parents to complain. The bullying continues, but the boy no longer shares the problem with his parents for fear of another overreaction, rendering the parents unable to help at all and leaving the boy feeling more alone than ever.

Exceptions: Parents must step in if there is evidence that their child is in danger of being physically hurt.. there is repeated stealing or destruction of property. the bullying is causing behavioral changes in the child...or the bully is more than a year or two older than the target—younger kids usually cannot physically or verbally stand up to older children. Otherwise, it's better to coach the child to solve the problem on his own.

Practical Responses

  • Determine whether you are dealing with a power-motivated bully or a jokester. Some bullies don't mean to be bullies--they just think they are being funny. Ask your child or the bully's teacher whether this might apply to your child's bully. If so, suggest that your child take the bully aside and privately say, "It's not funny." It's best if the bullied child can do this so that he/she gains problem-solving skills and confidence, but a teacher or school administrator can do it as well. Most jokesters will desist. Unfortunately, this won't stop bullies who abuse others because of a desire for power.
  • Help your child plan a bully-deflating response. Bullies typically move on to other targets when their bullying repeatedly fails to elicit the desired response—tears, anger, fear or some other sign of suffering.

Coach your child to stand up straight, look the bully in the eye and remain calm when confronted, sending nonverbal signals of strength.

Practice providing simple responses that show disdain or disinterest, not fear or anger. The child could say "that's not cool" or "stop it," then calmly walk away. Or think up a comeback that takes the steam out of the bully's words without insulting the bully.

Example: An overweight child could respond, "Wow! You're right! I am overweight. I'm so glad you pointed that out. I wouldn't have noticed.” Or "Yep, I'm fat. So what?"

This works best when the bullying is verbal, not physical. Be persistent—it might take several incidents for the bully to figure out that a target's response has permanently changed.

  • Instruct your child to subtly avoid the bully, when possible. Some bullies seek out their targets, but more often, bullying is opportunistic. The bullying might end if the bully never runs into your child when no adults are around.

Examples: Recommend that your child sit near the front of the school bus and remain near an adult during recess or in the cafeteria.

If your child is required to sit in a certain part of the bus or cafeteria, ask the school to enlist the bus driver's or cafeteria staff's support in monitoring the situation. Too often, schools include only teachers in bullying prevention. Ask the school to place another adult-an administrator or volunteer parent, perhaps-on the bus and in the cafeteria.

  • Encourage your child to join a group or club related to his/her passion. Bullied children often feel isolated and friendless. It's easiest to make friends with those who share an interest. Having at least one friend is especially effective at blunting the impact of social isolation bullying. Ideally, this friend can remain close by at times when the bully tends to strike.

Example: A child interested in horses enrolls in group riding lessons at a local stable. Soon she makes friends with other area children who love horses.

  • Recruit an ally. Ask your child or your child's teacher if there's a popular classmate or older child who might be willing to inform the bully that his behavior is "not cool." If the bully is athletic, the coach of his team might be able to suggest an ally or perhaps even provide this message himself. Bullying often stops when bullies believe that the school's older students, popular students or popular coaches frown upon it. An older sibling can be a powerful ally if this sibling is not taking part in the bullying.

Example: An older boy warns those bullying his disabled younger brother, "You're talking about my little brother, and you have no idea how wonderful he is."

  • Reassure your child that he is safe and loved at home. This is particularly important for bullied elementary school children. The more young children hear that they are safe and loved, the higher their self-esteem is likely to climb. Heightened self-esteem decreases the odds that the child will dissolve into tears or run in fear when confronted by a bully, increasing the odds that the bully eventually will move on to a different target.

Example: A mother told her socially isolated fifth-grade daughter, "I want you to remember that I love you and that I'll be here waiting for you at the end of the day and greeted the girl warmly at the door every afternoon. This girl used the positive self-talk, "I know my mother loves me," to survive difficult moments at school.

  • Deprive cyberbullies of their anonymity. Online bullying can be particularly vicious because these bullies believe their words cannot be traced back to them. Instruct your child to save bullying e-mails and text messages. Print out hard copies. If the bullying continues, contact your Internet provider...or the Web sites where rumors are being spread, and file a complaint. They might be able to trace or block the bully.

Sometimes simply telling a suspected cyberbully that the child or the child's parents plan to contact the Internet provider can stop the bullying

Example: "My parents are contacting AOL security to find out who has been sending me nasty e-mails."

If the cyberbullying involves threats, get the school or the local police involved in tracking down the perpetrator. The nonprofit Web site might be able to offer assistance as well.

  • Inform the administration about the bullying, and ask for assistance in finding a solution if there is physical abuse...destruction or theft of property...behavioral changes in your child.. an older bully...or if no other option works.

Treat school administrators and employees as allies who want to help you solve the bullying problem. When parents of bullied children blame schools, the result is more likely to be mutual anger than an end to the bullying.

  • Talk to the bully's parents only if you know the family or know someone who does and are confident that the parents are well-meaning, attentive and likely to respond reasonably. If you don't know or don't trust the bully's family, it's possible that your complaints could make the parents irrationally angry at you...or that the parents could punish their child but fail to monitor his future behavior, leaving this bully to take revenge on your child for the punishment.

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