Helping Your Child Handle Bullies - Part 1 of 2

On February 24, 2002, the cover article for the New York Times Magazine "Girls Just Want to be Mean" finally drew attention to the aggressive tendencies of girls, a long neglected subject. While much attention has been paid in recent years (particularly in the wake of school shootings) to the ways in which boys vent frustration, anger, low self-esteem and a sense of isolation, until now many people have not realized that, while the damage may seem subtler, girls can do as much psychological injury to their peers as boys who harm in more physical ways. Now it's time to ask ourselves: what can we do as parents to help our children (boys and girls) resist cliques and stand up to bullies?

The first step in rallying around your children means that you must make an ongoing commitment to the process. Helping children develop psychological strength and empowering them with the ability to stand up to bullying does not fall in the "quick fix" category of parenting techniques. Yet a commitment on your part will be a gift that lasts throughout your child's life - for the truth is that even as adults there are times when we fall prey to bullying and feel left out of certain groups. If you give your children the tools to handle these situations during their childhood, they will wind up becoming stronger adults.

One thing we must certainly do, on an ongoing basis, is to be aware of what exactly is going on in our children's lives. All too often we're so relieved that they seem content in school and appear to be doing well (and we often base this opinion on their grades, which may only rarely reflect their social life) that we fail to pick up on the subtle cues that might clue us in to the fact that there is a bully or clique with which they are contending. One mother told me that all of her son's friends were signing up to participate in track. She asked him if he'd like to participate too, but he said "no" which didn't surprise her, given that he was more academically inclined. However, the first morning that track began, she and her son were leaving the house and she overheard her son mumble, as he went down the stairs "Well, I guess I'm in for a lot of teasing starting today." Had this mother not been as aware as she was - knowing that track was beginning that day was critical - she might not have paid attention to her son's statement. Instead, her radar went off, and she was able to question her child about what he was concerned about (and subjected to in the past, as it turned out) and ultimately give him the tools to handle it.

A second important component of helping your child stand up to bullies involves building your child's self-esteem on an on-going basis. For no matter how many tools and techniques you have, and how well you may impart them to your child or utilize them yourself, if your child lacks confidence in his or her ability to stand up to a bully, you will not be able to help him succeed. According to theorists, self-esteem begins early. In fact, it's believed that by the age of 6 weeks, a child has a sense of "good me in a good world" or "bad me in a bad world." There's no need to despair, however, because your child is over the age of 6 weeks. Theorists also believe that self-esteem is a process and continues to grow (or diminish) over the period of a lifetime. However, it is something that must be addressed on a daily, on-going basis.

Children's self-esteem is made up of four basic components: the child must feel unconditionally loved and accepted by his parents; the child must have a sense of accomplishment in school and extra-curricular activities; the child must feel respected by her parents; and finally there is the influence of peers and others on a child's self-esteem.

In order to combat the influence of peers and others, over which parents have no direct control, we must frequently assess how we are doing in the other three areas of self-esteem building. If we are successful, then the influence of peers and others on our children's self-esteem will be relatively minor. If I had to name the single most important thing that parents can do to influence their child's self-esteem, it would be to act in respectful ways towards your child even when you're angry or must discipline them. Respect is conveyed when we:

* Use "I" statements rather than "you" statements, such as "I feel uncomfortable with this mess, please clean it up" rather than "You made a big mess again, can't you ever keep things picked up?"

* Avoid labels. Do NOT say "You're such a slob, don't bother to call me your mother." Say instead what action you'd like the child to take, "I'd like you to put down the Nintendo and clean up now please."

* Refrain from sarcasm. Do NOT say "Where were you raised anyway? In a barn?" Children often fail to hear the "humor" in adult sarcasm, particularly if it's directed at them. If you want your child to do something, simply ask them in the same way that you would ask a guest in your house.

* Watch your tone of voice and body language when you speak to your child. A tone of voice that conveys disgust, frustration, annoyance, and other negative feelings can often send the message to your child that they aren't worthwhile human beings.

If you believe that your child has difficulty with low self-esteem, and he or she seems to be suffering from contact with a bully or clique, it's important to get help now. Read and learn techniques that build self-esteem, take a workshop, see or have your child see a professional. All of the other tools that we'll discuss in next month's article will be subject to the on-going development of your child's sense of confidence in himself and to your ability to communicate openly with him.