Being a parent of two school-age boys (and one pre-school-age girl), stories of children being terrorized by other children hit me harder than they did before I was a parent. It’s natural to wonder, “What if that happens to my kid someday soon? What if it happens tomorrow?!” We feel helpless, sending our vulnerable children out into a world where they’ll be met with a harsh reality. The reality being that, sometimes in life, you’re treated poorly for absolutely no reason.
So, we do our best to ensure we’re raising confident, strong kids who will know what to do if they’re ever faced with a merciless bully. But do they truly know how to handle such adversity? That’s the question many of us don’t want to ask ourselves. Because the answer is that most of our children won’t be prepared when or if it happens to them.
To gain a better understanding of effective approaches to bullying, I turned to Dr. Kyle Pruett, a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School. I was curious to see if research supported my own approach to bullying in the classroom.
Q. At what age is breaching the subject of bullying most effective?
Pruett: Early childhood marks the first opportunity for children to interact routinely with each other. As early as pre-k, 3- and 4-year olds can bully and be bullied regularly; therefore, it is important to breach the subject in developmentally appropriate language of bullying early on – when the emotions are new and fresh.
Q. When I was a child, I was told by my father, "If someone pushes you, you push back." Do studies show that type of approach to be successful?
Pruett: Alsaker’s research has shown that ‘eye for an eye’ approaches are headed for failure.*
Instead of pushing back have the child get in front of the bullying child and look them in the eye and tell them to ‘stop that, you are hurting my feelings/that is not nice.’ If the bullying continues, child should practice walking away, and count his steps as he leaves (this helps keep control of feelings by putting him in charge of what is happening). This can end the provocative interaction that the bully feeds on.
Tell your child to try to avoid the bullying kids in the class until the teacher can help the bully stop. The best way to do that is to stay with your group of friends.
*Alsaker, Françoise D., and Stefan Valkanover. "Early diagnosis and prevention of victimization in kindergarten." Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized (2001): 175-195.
Q. With bullying being discussed so much more openly than it was 20+ years ago, is this actually helping teachers and parents identify it in its early stages?
Pruett: Yes, of course. Talking to your children and their teachers openly about bullying helps identify the problems early on, heightening awareness and ways in which to prevent it. Research shows us that positive relationships between school and home are highly effective in preventing bullying from getting a foothold in a classroom. Recently, a Harris poll found that two-thirds of parents worry about their young children being bullied. This result should inspire us to have frequent conversations on this subject and develop new and creative ways to educate and inform our youngsters about what bullying really is, how they can prevent it and how to find the appropriate channels for reporting it if or when it occurs.
Q. How important is it to discuss with our children the concept of bullying before it affects them personally?
It’s extremely important as it can help them take the right action before it affects them negatively. To ensure our children treat others fairly and speak up when they see a peer being bullied, we should be teaching them these behaviors while they are young to build on their natural ability to show empathy. Empathy, a key tool in dealing with and preventing bullying, shows up as early as the toddler years (picture a toddler offering a hug or a stuffed animal to a peer who feels sad).
Q. Do studies show any connection between aggressive parents yielding aggressive, bullying children?
Pruett: Parents who bully others inside and outside their families are known to have children who are statistically more likely to bully other children. This is especially true if both parents aggressively bully other. But because of natural variations in temperament, it is not a universal trait among offspring of bullying parents. All children can be helped by bullying prevention approaches, as can their parents.
I hope, if nothing else, this provided a helpful blueprint on the benefits of open communication with your own children about bullying. Because, frankly, it’s not only our job to identify when it’s happening to our kids. It’s our job to ensure we’re identifying those harmful traits in our own.
If I’m being honest, it’s still possible I’ll tell my son to “push back” if someone pushes him, as I’ve seen firsthand how a display of resilience and strength can stop a bully in his tracks. However, I’m open to the ideas that Dr. Pruett presents as well, and that they could be more effective. When it comes to raising our children and preparing them for the challenges of the outside world, we can and should be open to different perspectives. This is the best way to ensure we’re making an informed, balanced decision. Our children would want that.
Joe DeProspero can be found on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.