By Michelle Bostian, LCSW Lower School Counselor for Greensboro Day School

Bullying today is just not what it used to be … We are always hearing that these days. “Well, when I was a kid we had to walk to school in the snow!” The same applies to bullying. It is not the tyranny of the big mean boy who steals lunch money. It’s the otherwise sweet girl that shares her candy with all the girls she likes in front of that one girl that she doesn’t. It’s the special clubs and exclusionary occurrences on the playground day after day. Sure, there are still instances of name calling and deliberate tripping. But now there are obvious and malicious emails intended to haunt and dominate. Today, the bullying we need to target and prevent with our children is the subtle, the covert and the as yet, uncensored.

Bullying prevention could be called something friendlier like “friendship skills”. Or it could be called something really basic, like “empathy”. Bottom line, the emotional impact from any type of bullying is the same. The psychological scarring implicit with this behavior is well known to be a common underlying factor in a child’s history who later commits acts of violence or other socially unacceptable behavior.

So here’s the deal. All kids can be bullies, or “wear the bully hat” as author Trudy Ludwig puts it when she travels the US and talks with school age kids about bullying. When someone hurts someone else, dominates them in some way, and they know it is hurting the other person, that is bullying. Plain and simple. It’s the group of girls at lunch who scooch over and fill up the empty space when your daughter comes to sit down. Then they quickly adjust to allow the girl behind her space to sit at their table. Bullying is when your son tells you he and his friends did sit ups in a goofy way just like “that weird boy”, and everyone laughed.

You know it when you hear it. As a parent you likely get that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you just ache for your child. You want to go grab that kid in the library and set a few things straight. You want to give that kid a piece of your mind, let her know that she can’t treat your kid that way and get away with it. But you can’t. When you intervene like this as a parent you render your child powerless and at greater risk of being victimized again.

The more powerful thing to do is to empower your kids. Equip them with the problem solving skills to assert themselves. Role play with your kids. They need to practice the skills to create those pathways in their brains. They need to practice until it is as automatic as “stop, drop and roll”. Please don’t tell them to ignore it. Every kid who has ever come to talk to me about this stuff has already tried that. Teach kids first to say, “Stop”. They also need skills like walking away, changing the subject and saying something ridiculously funny. Explain the difference between telling and tattling. Tattling is to get someone else in trouble: “He took two cookies instead of one”. Telling is to protect someone from getting hurt on the inside or on the outside: “She calls me Fatty Patty every day at recess and now two other girls call me that too.”

Books your children can read to help build the skills and social resilience they need to succeed are listed at the end of this article. There are lots of books you can read, too. Equally important, there are things you can do each and every day to reduce your child’s likelihood that they will be bullied or that they will bully. It boils down to empathy. Teach them to think about their feelings and the feelings of others. Teach them that their behavior has an impact on the feelings of others. Model this type of behavior at home through simple things like sharing your “lows and highs” each day. This gives kids a tool for talking about their feelings. And it gives adults a tool as well.

In our family, on the nights we sit down together for dinner, we share our lows and highs. One person starts with “My low is that Caitlyn broke my favorite pencil today. My high is that we had ice cream after school.” Each person has a turn, even parents. It’s important for parents to let kids know that not only do they have feelings, but that sometimes relationships have difficult elements. It might go something like this: “My low is that I had an argument with a friend today and I feel sad about that. My high is that we had a good talk at lunch and we worked it out.” You don’t need to share more about the disagreement. Just share that you have them and that they don’t feel good and that you DO work them out.

Last, be sure your school has an empathy building curriculum. (At Greensboro Day School we use a program calledSecond Step.) Ask your school how they build a child’s empathy, perspective taking and problem solving skills. These are the skills to success. Not just emotional success, but educational success as well. When kids are not preoccupied by their social world around them they are much more focused on their school work. And guess what? They are also more inclined to follow directions at home when they are not ruminating about social drama at school!

Books for adults:
*Faber, Adele and Mazlish, Elaine – Siblings Without Rivalry
*Rubin, Kenneth and Thompson, Andrea – The Friendship Factor: Helping Our Children Navigate Their Social World – And Why it Matters to their Success and Happiness
*Sheras, Peter – Your Child: Bully or Victim? Understanding and Ending School Yard Tyranny

Books for Kids:
Burnett, Karen Gedig –  Simon’s Hook; A story About Teases and Putdowns
Cohen-Posey, Kate – How to Handle Bullies, Teaser and Other Meanies: A Book That Takes the Nuisance Out of Name Calling and Other Nonsense
Crosby, Bill – The Meanest Thing to Say
Lester, Helen – Hooway for Wodney
Ludwig, Trudy – My Secret Bully
Ludwig, Trudy – Just Kidding
Ludwig, Trudy – Sorry
Moss, Peggy – Say Something
Munson, Derek – Enemy Pie
Polacco, Patricia – Mr. Lincoln’s Way