This post is part of “Bully No More,” an editorial series hosted by the Fort Worth Moms Blog.
In the 6th grade, I used to walk home from school with my next door neighbor, Amelia. One of the older boys in our neighborhood decided to make us his special project but yelling and throwing crabapples at us every afternoon as we walked home. As an adult and a clinical psychologist, I can see that his behavior was almost certainly related to his own problems. But as a kid, I can only recall feeling scared and helpless.
One of the most painful parts of childhood can be the experience of being bullied. And, sadly, my clinical experience with adult clients has confirmed for me that bullying can have effects on a person’s lifelong mental health and relationships. But I emphasize the word “can” because it isn’t inevitable.
Good news! We have the power to help our sweet kiddos develop valuable skills for coping with difficult situations and emotions before they ever encounter the first mean comment. It’s never too early to start building a solid psychological bully buffer.
Talk About Bullies from Day One
Bullies draw their power from fear, aggression, and inducing shame. For these reasons, it’s important to talk with children about the concept of bullies before they encounter them in real life. Bullies have a way of making their victims feel weak and ashamed . . . so much so that children who are bullied often don’t tell parents or other adults until more serious hurt feelings and mental health problems have developed. Consider telling children, even young children, that when another child says something that significantly bothers them or results in feeling badly about themselves, it’s important to tell a trusted adult. Every time.
Create a Sense of Psychological Safety at Home
Children are often fearful that if they tell adults about what they’re experiencing, they will get themselves or the bully “in trouble.” It’s important to let kiddos know that the caring adults in their lives are always interested in listening to how they’re feeling, and that includes “negative” emotions like sadness, embarrassment, and shame. It’s equally important to communicate that their feelings will not be punished, judged, or discounted. The goal here is to establish open lines of emotional communication, which isn’t always easy. You’re not promising you won’t take action if your child shares something that needs adult intervention. But you are letting them know that you can be trusted with all their emotions by demonstrating interest and acceptance of your child’s feelings over and over and over again. Parents who create a sense of emotional safety at home are more likely to hear from their kiddos when a bully comes on the scene, giving them greater abilities to help.
Flip the Script
Bullies are annoyingly good at making you feel like there is something wrong with you and it’s all your fault. Ever hear the saying, “Hurt people hurt people”? Well, it’s almost always the case that bullies themselves are harboring significant emotional hurt in their own lives. In addition, mental health symptoms can look different in adults and children. For example, adults often think of a depressed person as someone who cries constantly and lays in bed all day. But what isn’t commonly known is that one of the primary symptoms of depression in children (especially boys) can be aggression. So how does knowing this help parents build their kiddos’ bully resilience?
Parents can help kids develop healthy and helpful thinking patterns by teaching them how to evaluate and change their own thoughts. For example, the thought, “That boy is such a jerk” could be gently challenged and revised to a more helpful thought such as, “That boy is probably being mean to me because it makes him feel better about his own problems.” The first thought produces feelings of anger and frustration, whereas the second leads to feelings of compassion and empathy. The key here is to help children understand that they are not the cause of the bully’s behavior. The cause is something outside of themselves. This can go a long way to reducing the shame associated with being bullied.
We Can’t Control Our Feelings, but We Can Choose Our Behaviors
The victims of bullies often feel helpless and out of control. Parents can help reverse this by reminding their kiddos that they do have some control. None of us have the power to control our feelings or another person’s behavior. But we all have the ability to choose our own behaviors in reaction to difficult feelings. With the help of parents, children can sort through and choose which actions are likely to be the most effective given their specific situation. For example, some may choose to ignore the bully. Others may choose to say something or report the situation to a teacher or other caring adult. Whatever the choice, having the power to choose is empowering!
Encourage Healthy Coping Skills
People with a wide array of healthy coping skills simply fare better in the face of challenges. You can help your child to build that foundation by encouraging healthy coping (e.g. talking about emotions, reading, listening to music, playing with pets, engaging in hobbies, exercising, journaling, etc.) and discouraging unhealthy coping (e.g. avoiding negative emotions, overeating, aggression, isolating, etc.). Even better, model it yourself. Don’t be afraid to show your little one when you are frustrated or sad and how you get through it — this is one of the most effective teaching tools we have!
While the above steps can go a long way toward helping a child develop psychological and emotional resilience, some children will need the help of a mental health professional. You know your child best. If he or she is having significant difficulty coping or their experiences with a bully are impacting their ability to function at school or in relationships with friends or family, it’s time to seek help.