Bullying is a growing problem, and not even preschoolers are safe, with studies (such as one published in BioMed Central Public Health) finding that “bullying and victimisation are already common problems in early elementary school”.
Bullying is aggressively and intentionally hurting others, physically or emotionally, when not provoked, says Durban educational psychologist Dr Caron Bustin. And a child can be particularly at risk if they are a loner (bullies prefer isolated victims), quiet, sensitive or different in some respect, whether it’s having a disability or an unusual feature. Some children may even unconsciously invite bullying by their demeanour or behaviour.
The best defence for a child is healthy self-esteem and resilience, and you can help foster that.
- Ensure that your child feels loved and accepted for whoever they are – and however different. They will feel more able to cope with stress and adversity, says Bustin.
- Give them opportunities to receive positive affirmation so they feel good about themselves – encourage activities that interest them and that they can excel at, and arrange visits with children and other family members with whom they get on well.
- However busy you are, make time to be with them and talk to them each day, or ensure there are other caring adults who can do this.
- Model constructive, calm approaches to difficult situations. If you come home complaining about being picked on by your boss or a colleague, you encourage your child to have the same attitude to challenges.
- Talk to your child about bullying, using teachable moments in storybooks, movies and TV shows. Let your child know you’re always ready to listen and want to help, says Bustin.
- Promote problem-solving skills. When they have a problem, encourage them to think which course of action would give the best result. If they were teased, for example, would revenge make it worse? Would joking about it or ignoring it solve it? Should they talk directly to the person about how the teasing makes them feel? Or tell a teacher or other adult?
- Teach them to be assertive, rather than to retaliate and fight back – bullies tend to be physically stronger or to hunt in packs. “You’ll also be handing back control to the aggressor and perpetuating the cycle,” says Bustin. “Rather teach them to say ‘no’ without lashing back.”
- Suggest that your child looks a bully in the eye and says firmly: “Friends don’t hurt friends,” or “I can’t be your friend if you hurt my feelings,” advises Bustin. “An older child can even say ‘I’m not a victim, so leave me alone’. I like children to have a standard response and phrase that they use instinctively after a while.” They can then walk away. It’s best to resist using a put-down, which can aggravate bullies – just as crying or whining can encourage them.
- Draw happy, sad and brave faces, and tell your child to switch to a “brave face” if they are being bothered. “How you look when you encounter a bully is more important than what you say,” says Dr Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.
- Role-playing bully scenarios with your child can help, with them practising the “Friends don’t hurt friends” response, says Bustin. But don’t dwell on the negative. Share uplifting stories from your own childhood, and how you overcame challenges eventually, to keep things upbeat.
IMAGE CREDIT: Gallo Images