For some tough bullying prevention strategies for kids of every age, we turned to psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schäfer. Shäfer advocates creating awareness in your child, helping them find a community of trusted adults and keeping the lines of communication open at home.
Teaching your child to spot bullying behaviour is the first step to fending it off. Of course it looks a lot different from elementary school to high school. Here's what to be aware of:
Bullying often manifests at playtime, when fun can quickly escalate into something unexpected. "Children who use bullying behaviour are often very impressed with aggression and domination," says Schäfer. "They may play explosively and dramatically, such as kicking things down or using sticks as pretend weapons. While this may be the play style of many children, it's of importance only when it is one of a cluster of behaviours and is also notably more pronounced than typical play." Let your child know that feeling uncomfortable in a play situation is a warning signal that things aren't right. They have the opportunity then to walk away.
Bullies tend to put others down in social situations as a way to mask their own insecurities. They often work in groups, where a "strength in numbers" illusion makes them feel stronger. "By high school, bullying is a mistaken way of attaining social status and prestige in one's peer group. This type of approach is mostly seen in those who are overly invested in status issues and who succumb easily to peer pressure. If your teen is completely undone if they can't fit in by having the latest clothing style or technology, be on watch."
Bullies might use social media to make anonymous attacks or threats and to target victims. Be alert to your teen's web habits to find out if there might be a problem. "All teens want more privacy from their parents, but if they hole up in their bedroom for hours and avoid family contact, if they hit "delete" and clear the screen every time you enter their room, you should be concerned." Since teens will be less likely to tell you about their issues if they know their devices will be taken away, agree to come up with some household rules instead. "Set limits on use (no electronics in bedrooms after tuck-ins), and agree to random spot checks of texts, emails and other communications, with the understanding of lost privileges if you find anything inappropriate."
Keep the communication lines open at home, and make sure your tone isn't judgmental. You don't want your child to feel like they're doing something wrong by coming to you. "Parents need to lay a foundation of trust that they are a safe person for a child to come to with their deep personal issues," says Schäfer. "This trust can be built by your child's experiencing how you react to other personal stories and bad news. Do you blow up when your child tells you they broke a lamp? Chances are they won't come to you to say they have been talking to a guy in a chat room and now it's getting weird."
There are some issues your child just might not feel comfortable talking to you about, so help them identify a few other people they can trust. "Show your children that you are someone who can handle big problems with them, and if you don't think they would trust you, ask them what other trusted adult they have in their life they would or could go to if they needed to. A teacher? A coach? A favourite aunt? Have them identify this person in their own mind," says Schäfer.
Let your child know that you think they're ready and able to protect themselves and that you trust them to make good decisions about their own life. "Tell them, above and beyond all else, that you are a good judge of character, that you as their parent know them very well, and you have total trust they will manage," says Schäfer. "Never pity or feel sorry for a child or be drawn into their lack of self-confidence. To do so is to send a vote of non-confidence."
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