Helping Your Child Handle Bullies - Part 2 of 2
Self-esteem is the first and perhaps most important component in empowering children to handle the bullies and cliques in their lives (see part one of this article for more information about raising your child's self-esteem.) However, children must also have a way to communicate - to stand up for your and their values and to assert themselves in difficult situations. These skills are learned by children through role modeling and by having an open line of communication with your child so that you can teach them how to handle tough situations.
An open line of communication between you and your child is necessary in order for you to impart the information your child may need to handle bullies and cliques. A respectful attitude (see part one) towards your child is the foundation of this openness. In addition, it is important to listen more than talk - even when you want to teach your child something.
Listening means that when your child is communicating about a difficult situation you refrain from giving advice (even though you may have excellent advice to give), stop yourself from interrogating your child about what happened (even though you may be dying to know), and literally keep your mouth closed and your heart open. In the story "The Little Prince" the fox says: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." Listening with our hearts when our children talk to us can help us refrain from appearing to be a "know-it-all" which is off-putting to kids and blocks communication. To paraphrase Jack Petrash in his book "Covering Home": kids are more than willing to take our hands and accompany us on the search for answers - as long as they don't get the impression that we already know all of the answers to begin with. In other words, listening is the process of exploration that we engage in with our children on a daily basis. It is not a tool only for use when a crisis arises, but a daily commitment of time, energy, self-restraint and love. When we listen well, we create children who enjoy talking to us and who are willing to listen to us when we have advice to give.
Advice, however, is a tricky thing. There is a balance you must achieve when giving your child advice so that you do not attempt to take over and fix the problem for him. Although there is usually a strong temptation to rush in and save a child when he is faced with the problems associated with bullies and cliques - for example by immediately calling the other child(ren)'s parents, or meeting with the head of the school or other such adult-driven solutions - this actually disempowers the child and makes him even more vulnerable. This vulnerability can result in him being further picked on by other kids, or it may actually cause him to become part of a clique or a bully himself, simply in order to "fit in."
Empowering a child to handle tough situations himself involves two things: a confident and positive outlook and an ability to help him explore possible solutions and examine the consequences of enacting those solutions. Believing that your child can handle the situation will help him feel confident himself. Helping him explore solutions involves asking the following (or similar) questions:
* How did you handle that?
* What do you think could be done about that?
* Why do you think that / those kid(s) are behaving that way? (This question can help your child understand the motivation behind how other children behave - low self-esteem, anger, a sense of power, etc. and either ignore the behavior or refrain from reacting which results in a lack of "pay-off" for the bullying. Once there's no "pay-off" the bully will often find someone else to pick on.)
* Can you think of a way I can help? (Although it's important not to take over when your child is faced with bullying or clique behavior, there's nothing wrong with letting her know that she has your support and can count on your assistance if necessary. Having an ally can be give a child a sense of relief and even of power when handling this tough situation.)
Exploring problems through asking your child the questions above will empower your child and help her brainstorm possible solutions that will become an invaluable part of her resources when she's actually "on the spot" outside the home.
What happens, however, when it seems that it is your child who is drawn towards the clique or is engaging in bullying behavior himself? The solution here involves even more time and commitment on the part of the parent. Children who are drawn towards this type of behavior need parents who will work at building their sense of self-esteem and who will create in the household a sense of belonging which makes it unnecessary for the child to seek out a clique to which she can belong.
Children with high self-esteem are children who are willing to march to the beat of a different drummer, and who feel such a strong sense of themselves as people that they have no need to put others down to make themselves feel better (a tactic which bullies and cliques engage in.) When this is coupled with a deep sense of being rooted in the family, it makes the child almost invulnerable to engaging in bullying behaviors.
In upcoming issues we will discuss in detail some practical strategies you can use to help your child feel more firmly rooted in your family and in your values and also what you can do if, after all of your work on self-esteem and creating a sense of belonging, your child still seems to be drawn toward cliques or bullying behaviors.