We have had several conferences over the years where a parent accused another child of being a bully. Bullying is a BIG word, one that we don’t use lightly at Sunrise Montessori because it’s so incredibly rare at this age. And unless you are working with children every day, it’s hard to know what bullying looks like. Yet as you know, one day soon, your child will move on to elementary school and there is a strong chance that he or she will experience a bullying situation of some sort, but when is it just a child acting mean? How do you even know when it IS bullying? And what can you do to prevent it?
What is bullying?
There are many definitions out there. The one I like best for children under 11 years old is: When a person or a group behaves in ways—on purpose and over and over—that make someone feel hurt, afraid or embarrassed. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or any combination of these three. Source #1
Kids will occasionally do or say something that is hurtful. And while it is important to address that behavior, it is inappropriate to label them immediately as a bully. Instead, try to distinguish between hurtful or unkind behavior and bullying behavior. But of course, to do that, you need to know specific differences.
When is it NOT bullying?
Let’s start with the age first. Obviously an infant cannot bully someone, so at what age are children developmentally old enough to truly act like a bully? The answer is seven years old. And that makes sense, if you think about it. Contemplate the definition again…bullying is repeated (over and over). It therefore isn’t accidental once the behavior reaches it’s third, fourth or fifth occurence. Which means the bully is actively thinking about it, whom to do it to, the location of where to do it, and what they have to set up or say to get the reaction they are seeking. It’s so complex that a preschooler is typically just too young to understand all that, remember it, and then carry it out. Bullying, after all, is quite sophisticated for a child as young as a preschooler, so it is important to distinguish bullying from other unkind, mean and harmful behavior. Calling someone a name or pushing someone, being rude, or having an argument with someone is not bullying. To be defined as bullying, all three components must be present: (1) repeated actions or threats, (2) a power imbalance and (3) intention to cause harm. If bullying is identified correctly, there are various ways to address it. Unfortunately, though, some parents want to label every unkind thing kids do as bullying. When this happens, the message of what bullying truly is gets watered down and the word bullying loses its meaning. And no one wants that to happen. Kids not having the same interests, not wanting to play the same game at recess, or even not wanting to be friends with your child are not bullies. When we talk about bullying, we want people to take it seriously. But if suddenly every mean thing a child does gets labeled bullying, people stop paying attention. Source #4
How do you know if your child is acting like a bully or being bullied?
It usually starts with a phone call from the school: Your child’s in trouble for bullying or is being bullied. “Ninety-nine percent of parents hearing the news that their child is acting like a bully will say, ‘No way, not my kid’ and get defensive,” says Jennifer Cannon, a family therapist in Newport Beach, California. “But every kid is capable of bullying, even the kid you think is an angel.” So why do kids bully? “One reason is when popular and powerful children use bullying to maintain their power and popularity. The other reason is when children who experience a sense of deprivation feel entitled to bully other kids; that is, ‘I’ve been dealt a bad hand, so the rules don’t apply to me.’ or ‘I’ve been picked on, so I’ll get to them before they get to me.'” Kids also observe examples of bullying behavior every day through media, politics, TV reality shows, other kids at school, and even family dynamics. They may not understand that such behaviors are not acceptable anywhere. Source #3
You may also find out because your child tells you. Maybe someone has been treating them mean at school and they tell you or you discover it when asking about something else. There are other signs your child is being bullied or is acting like one that are more common for older children and teenagers, such as falling grades, losing friends or difficulty sleeping.
Something we rarely consider…What do you do if your child is bullying others?
The good news is that kids can unlearn bullying behaviors, and you can help them change their ways. Source #3
- Acknowledge the Behavior: Sit down with your child, speak in a calm, firm tone, and ask him what happened and why he behaved a certain way. Be a good listener and avoid blame. Kids need to understand that it’s okay to admit they made a mistake. Ask questions to help him understand how his behavior affects others: “Is what you did respectful? Did it hurt someone? Would you want someone to do that to you?”
- Focus on Consequences: Help your child understand that she is accountable for her actions. Depending on the circumstances, you can eliminate something your child cherishes so the consequence will be significant, such taking away your child’s cell phone, eliminating or reducing TV or video game time, or preventing participation in a social outing. Have your child write a paragraph describing what it would feel like to be in the other child’s shoes or write an apology letter.
- Be Proactive About Working With the School: Teachers and Administrators work best when they see that parents sincerely want to improve the situation. Don’t feel you’ll be judged as a bad parent. It’s hard raising kids, and it’s not a failure to ask for help.
- Build Social and Emotional Skills: Empower your child to build skills for resolving conflicts and handling tough situations. Social and emotional learning includes self-awareness, self-management, resilience, social agility, and responsible decision-making. Look for after-school programs and extracurricular activities that can provide new settings to develop ways to build positive relationships.
If your child is bullied or treated poorly, what can you do to prevent it from affecting your child?
Teach children that it’s not always possible to avoid conflict. Rob and I remember many conversations with our son, John, about this in elementary school. He would come home and tell us about all the mean acts he observed or experienced firsthand that day (second grade is infamous for children doing that, fyi). Every slight was recorded in his mind, which isn’t healthy. So we explained to him that this happens everywhere and taught him to build “emotional armor.”
Teach your child to ask themselves if there is anything they can do to prevent the situation from occurring again. What actions might make a difference? Consider one of the six simple ways to move from being a bystander to being an ally when faced with a bullying situation. And if all else fails, contact your child’s teacher or Administrator. Our children are not perfect and it’s possible they are interpreting something incorrectly, so it’s important to start the conversation with the idea that you don’t know exactly what has happened, but you are concerned and want to make them aware of what you know. Then, if the bullying continues, you can show it fits the bullying criteria because it’s the same behavior repeating itself, which will help your school’s leaders to take action. They don’t want your child bullied either.
So I’m sure reading this reminded you of a bullying scenario from your own childhood. Here is one of mine that was a turning point.
I was an insecure, socially-awkward child (see proof on the left!) and reacted strongly when someone made fun of me, which meant bullies were attracted to me like metal shavings to a magnet. The bully story I want to share with you that I now remember fondly was a boy named Brian R. in middle school (yes, it took me that long to figure out how to stop being the victim and build some emotional armor…I did mention that I wasn’t exactly running in the popular kids’ group, right?). Brian and I had PE along with a hundred other teenagers and he took a lot of pleasure in saying things to get me upset each morning. Saying something to the teacher back then got you no where, so I never bothered. The bullying though got to the point where I was nauseous as I walked out for attendance. I realized that I had to do something or it was going to be an entire year of hell, so after careful and inventive brainstorming, I did something about it, and boy, did it WORK. He avoided me like the plague, wouldn’t even LOOK at me from that point on and occasionally, I would hear his friends ribbing him about it. Bullying seemed to melt away from that point on. So what did I do? I walked straight up to him the day after my epiphany with a big, dopey grin on my face, making sure that I had waited until just before roll call so that ALL of his friends could hear me, and I said something like, “I finally understand now WHY you keep picking on me! You LIKE me! I like you, too. Do you want to get together after school today?” His face faltered and the boys around him started snickering. He tried to recover, making one of his typical cruel remarks, but I just smiled at him while shaking my head and walked away. To seal the deal, I waved at him with a smile a couple times that period from across the volleyball net. Yes, I have a lot of fondness for that day. 😉
Was Brian a bully? Absolutely. Did I have the power to stop it? Turns out I did. Our children shouldn’t have to deal with bullies or someone treating them mean, but it’s going to happen at some point, so start having conversations with your child now. Teach them they have the power to try to do something to stop or avoid it, but if it’s not working, to tell you about it. Share stories at the dinner table when you dealt with mean children from your childhood and what you did to prevent it. Use these conversations as a way to illustrate that it happens to all of us, how it feels to be on the receiving end, and more importantly, to offer strategies to extinguish the bullying behavior. And if you truly believe a child could be bullying your child and your child has tried to prevent it but it isn’t working, then it’s time to bring it to the attention of your school’s Assistant Principal. By being aware of what bullying is…and what it is not…you are one step ahead of everyone else because, as Rod Paige said, “there is no more powerful advocate than a parent armed with information and options.” And somehow, a gawky girl who eventually realized how to petrify a bully. 🙂