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How to help keep your kid from being bullied

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters offers tactics to deal with bullies, at home and in school.

Today in "Weekend Parenting" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #24:
Banish the Bullies
Who are the bullies? Who are the victims? And what can you do if you have one, or both, living under your roof? Plenty — from teaching bully-coping skills to encouraging social competence in your own kids. This is one area where children really can’t do it alone. They need your help and involvement to keep them safe, happy, and with positive memories of childhood.


Let me tell you about Stephen. This 11-year-old sixth grader was polite, a good communicator, and a really nice kid. He was sensitive and wouldn’t hurt a fly. But apparently that can be a problem, especially when you’re a slightly built, non-athletic sixth-grade boy. Although most of the girls befriended Stephen, the guys in his class really stuck it to him. He told me that a typical school day might include being called a “fag,” perhaps getting his pants shanked (pulled down a few inches, usually from behind), and either eating alone or with some girls at the cafeteria table. Life did not feel good for this young man, and it really wasn’t his fault. Stephen was becoming more depressed as the school year wore on, and his folks brought him for therapy to see if I could help.

Although kids of all ages can be bullied or be bullies themselves, it tends to escalate in the middle-school years. Children often pick on one another verbally or shove and push a weak classmate. Overweight kids are easy targets, as are children who dress, speak, or act differently than others. It’s a shame that our culture allows and perhaps even encourages these types of behaviors, but it’s still a reality in many of our school grounds, classrooms, and neighborhoods.

As I worked with Stephen, we discussed his feelings and reactions to the teasing and bullying that he received. We also reviewed what he had tried to do to discourage it — what seemed to work and what had been a dismal failure. According to Stephen, he had tried everything and nothing had worked. He said that he had ignored the taunts, but the bullies kept coming. When teased about his poor basketball dribbling, he tried making a joke out of it, bouncing the ball even more haphazardly. This only led to more hoots and hollers from the guys, and he wished that he could just disappear. Stephen’s mom had invited the kids over for his 11th birthday party, but only two boys showed up along with a bunch of the girls. Stephen, though, said that he had a great time at his party since the kids who did come were truly his friends.

With that realization, Stephen really started himself on the road to a happier life. Once a child realizes what true friends are, that’s half the battle won. As we worked together, I told Stephen that trying to make his way into the popular guy crowd would probably be a battle and was unrealistic. Anyway, who would want to hang around with those guys?

Of course, Stephen and just about any kid his age would, as children are usually quite taken with popularity and peer pressure. As adults we understand the ephemeral nature of being cool, but kids still don’t get it. And many who are obsessed with fitting in don’t seem to notice that other kids are in the same situation. Eventually I was able to convince Stephen that he was not alone — that there were other children who felt left out and bullied, but they just didn’t advertise it.

I started my campaign to move Stephen into what I like to call the middle group — a few children who were like him in terms of sensibilities, interests, and social standing. His particular group grew to contain the two boys, Mark and Frank, who came to his birthday party, as well as Sarah, Katie, and Jana, who sat with him at lunch. Stephen’s parents did their best to have the boys sleep over whenever possible and to become friends with the other parents. As there is usually safety in numbers, when it became known that Stephen had a group of kids who would stand behind him, the bullying toned down. Why? He now had Mark and Frank as backup and a group of five to sit with at lunch. Sure, it wasn’t the most popular crowd and the cool guys didn’t go out of their way to be friendly, but they also didn’t go out of their way to beat on the kid anymore.

Most of us, like Stephen, have some not-so-fond memories of having been bullied as kids, or of even being the bully ourselves. Looking back as adults it may not make sense to have hurt others or, as victims, to have tolerated the wrath of a bully. But things look different when you’re a kid — maneuvering for social position, vying for admiration or attention, and fitting in with the popular crowd may be all that seems to matter during the school years.

As parents we want to help our children to avoid this seemingly senseless situation, or to at least facilitate their understanding as to why kids pick on others. To help get a grip on this, let’s consider the latest research on bullies and their victims, and what the best parental interventions are.

Bullies are those who use negative actions (generally physical or verbal aggression) against others. Most research has focused upon boys rather than girls. The little we know about female bullying is that girl bullies tend to use tactics different than their male counterparts. Girls often employ indirect bullying, such as socially isolating their victims by excluding them from the group, teasing, or spreading rumors. Boys tend to use more direct tactics such as hitting, shoving, fighting, or aggressive verbal abuse.

Boy bullies tend to be stronger, larger, and more aggressive than their peers. Some research suggests that bullies are also perceived as athletic, handsome, outgoing, and socially magnetic. Therefore, the movie stereotype of the bully as a defiant social outcast may be more myth than reality. Indeed, bullies tend to hang around other aggressive kids, and make up about 10 to 15 percent of the school-aged population.

When interviewed, grade-school bullies rate themselves as leaders, but the group they lead tends to be aggressive and cliquish, made up of those usually not accepted by more model students. They count on intimidation to raise and keep their status within the peer group. Even though bullies may be seen as hurtful to their victims, their intimidation often provides a certain social status. Other aggressive kids hang around them for protection and affiliation, and bullies are often rated as some of the most popular and socially connected children, especially in the elementary school years. The myth of the “low self-esteem bully” may be just that — a myth, since aggression, especially in males, often equates with status and popularity.

Therefore, bullies, especially those who assume leadership roles, may be those who use aggression effectively. There’s a great deal of competition for social resources during the school day (attention, friends, and allies), and effective bullies seem to be those who have learned to use their aggression to maintain their leadership role in the peer group.

Now let’s take a look at who these guys are shoving around. Habitual victims (those who seem to be constantly picked on) make up about 18 percent of the school-aged population. Many of us have been pushed around or verbally berated by another kid while growing up, but today, nearly one in five kids seem to be victimized year after year. Victims tend to be smaller, weaker, and shier than their peers. Kids with handicaps (physical, verbal, or learning), children who look different (are overweight, have unique physical characteristics, or who even are just consistently out of fashion) are picked on significantly more often than those who don’t stand out.

Victims, especially those who endure teasing or taunts over an extended period of time, tend to develop low self-esteem as well as depression. Statistically, victims are the least attractive, socially inappropriate kids and generally are not aggressive in return. However, impulsive victims can overreact, feeding the bully’s behavior by giving him just what he wants — attention. This can be seen by the bully as further provocation and may actually heighten the taunts and teasing, especially if the victim reacts in a highly emotional manner.

What You Can DoAs a parent you can definitely tone down bullying at home by setting up clear rules about verbal and physical aggression, and the negative consequences that the kids will receive if they step over the line. This is one area of child behavior where it is absolutely imperative for folks to lay down the law. Bullying and tormenting siblings, friends, or animals should never be tolerated in your home, and it’s up to you to put a stop to it as soon as you see the perpetrator starting to tease or torment.

It also follows that neither parent should accept being bullied by any of the kids. That may sound ridiculous (or at least it should!), yet I know many moms and more than a few dads who are very reluctant and even actually afraid of saying “no” to their kids or standing up to them. Not only is that intolerable, but it sure isn’t doing the kids any good to grow up believing that they can manipulate, torment, or bully adults or peers and get away with it.

Yes, it may work in the short run, but the real world will not tolerate that type of behavior, and your child will pay dearly.

Living the Law
Don’t allow physical aggression in your home. Bullies tend to come from homes where physical aggression is used by parents to punish their children, folks have a negative attitude toward their kids, or they tolerate aggressive behavior between members of the family. So try using negative consequences that are not aggressive or physical in nature (such as timeouts or losses of privileges), set limits on how much physical or verbal roughhousing you’ll let the kids engage in (if any), and adopt a supportive, positive attitude toward your children.

Teach bully-coping skills. Encourage your child when confronted by teasing or bullying to throw the aggressor off track by making a funny comment. For example, tell your daughter that if the perpetrator continues to tease her about her braces, to respond with something like “Oh, so you’re the new braces monitor. I didn’t realize that!” Or have your son manipulate the bully when being teased about his failed attempts at shooting hoops by saying, “Thanks for noticing. I appreciate your interest!” The point is that your child needs to learn to maintain his self-control in these uncomfortable situations, and by doing so he actually controls the bully-victim relationship. You should role-play various responses with your kids until they get good at it. The process can actually be fun!

Encourage social competence. Some victimized children may have deficits in social cognition or social competence. To avoid this, engage your child at an early age in playgroups or playdates, and consider preschool activities as well. As your child matures, continue to encourage group activities so that she learns how to enter into a new group of friends and to effectively work a crowd. Some kids need a boost in terms of learning socially appropriate behaviors, how to read and understand group actions, and how to start conversations even in awkward moments. Inclusion in group situations can go a long way in helping your child to feel more comfortable with others.

Help your child to fit in. Children who are socially aware tend not to be picked on as much by others. Sure, this is superficial and it shouldn’t be that way, but until we succeed at changing how kids view popularity and they become more humane with each other, I recommend that you expose your children to what’s important to kids their age — be it sports, music, movies, or fashion. However, if it looks like your kid is not interested in typical gender- or age-related activities, help him seek out other avenues of interest. Odds are that he’ll find a buddy on his baseball team or he’ll make a friend through Cub Scouts. You can help initiate and cement friendships by talking with the teacher and finding out which classmates may be good matches for your child. Pursue this by contacting their parents and offering a playdate or a sleepover. Often, kids just need a jumpstart to a relationship and then it takes on a life of its own.

Be assertive about bullying at school. If your kid is being bullied at school, contact the administration about the problem. When students do not tolerate bullying (kids report aggressive behavior to school authorities, interrupt bullying behavior, or defend victims), the rates of victimization and bullying decline. It’s possible that the school administration has been giving “implicit tolerance” to bullying on the belief that students must learn to deal with bullies themselves, or that coping with victimization is a normal part of growing up. It doesn’t have to be, though. It’s becoming apparent that when teachers, school administrators, and the students themselves do not tolerate bullying behavior, the incidence of this abuse decreases significantly. So don’t be afraid to talk to school personnel about the issue — it could save your child a lot of grief and misery!

Put it all together. Kids who have buddies, know how to be a good friend themselves, are compassionate with others, and are taught not to tolerate teasing and bullying tend not to become bullies or victims themselves. Encourage your child to pick friends wisely — perhaps by looking for middle-group pals who will be true companions even when the going gets tough.

NEXT WEEK: The importance of having kids do chores

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.