When Jada was small I spent so much time teaching her to be kind and respectful, I hadn’t even thought about teaching her to stand up for herself. It wasn’t until she had a few encounters with Mackenzie in 4-year-old preschool that I realized “I’m raising a marshmallow!” If someone hurt her feelings or said something mean to her, all she could do was cry or go tell the teacher. She was small, she was helpless, and she was sensitive…. the perfect combination for “victim.” This sudden “ah-ha” caused us to quickly shift our parenting approach, starting with teaching her how to stand up for herself. No longer was everything in Jada’s world in our control. She left us everyday to go to school and we had no idea what was happening on a moment-to-moment bais. We knew that one day she was going to need to function in the real world without us, but in no way did we realize that started at age 4. Of course we never wanted her to be a victim of bullying, but we weren’t actually taking any steps to ensure this didn’t happen. We hadn’t prepared her for dealing with people who weren’t nice and now we were confronted with this reality.
With this new awareness, our first step was to stop feeding into the tears. Crying (or whining) for virtually no reason (ex. because you didn’t get your way, you’re unhappy with an outcome, something required hard work, etc.) started to elicit a different response from us. Instead of giving her a hug, telling her it was going to be okay, and gently walking her through next steps, we started to emotionally disconnect when she engaged in behavior that was bound to make her a future target for bullying. We slowly shifted to responding by firmly repeating “When the going gets tough, you need to get tough with it!” while coaching her through how she was feeling, why she was feeling that way, and what would be a more constructive way to handle how she is feeling. We started pointing out examples in books and TV of kids mistreating each other and how the characters handled it. Then together we would evaluate if that was a helpful response (to the situation) or hurtful response (to the situation). The more examples we could provide, the deeper her understanding and the more she was able to generalize this concept and apply it to situations in her own life.
We also started noticing and praising when Jada showed mental toughness. When she stood up for herself, or asserted herself, or persevered when something was difficult, we showered her with cheers. Jada was naturally “sensitive,” but allowing her to crumble under tough situations was NOT AN OPTION, so getting past her sensitivity was imperative. At that time I was teaching middle school and knew her being able to maintain composure under stressful situations was essential to avoid bullying down the line. Roleplay played a big part in teaching Jada how to appropriately respond when being picked on. We roleplayed everything from the words and response phrases she used, down to practicing how to deliver her message with an assertive tone of voice and a “don’t mess with me” expression on her face.
Children will tease one another and bullying happens, but I believe it’s avoidable. Yes, we need to address the behaviors of the bully, but that won’t solve the problem altogether. Bullying isn’t restricted to a grade-school problem. Adults engage in it too, So just focusing on the behavior of the bully leaves children ill-prepared for future unpleasant encounters. Kids need to be taught characteristics of healthy vs toxic relationships and then they must be armed and empowered with the language and strategies to deal with bullying head-on.
Do you believe bullying is preventable? How do you teach your children to NOT be a victim of bullying?
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