I’ll never forget how in third grade, Kim used to repeatedly ask me to open my mouth, look inside, and ask if I have a retainer. “Why do you talk weird?” she’d ask. I’ll always remember her look of sheer disbelief that the only thing in my mouth was a Daffy Duck-sounding lisp. One friend thought it was so hilarious to ask me to say,“Sprite” and “slushy” to hear my speech impediment in action. Both felt awful and embarrassing.
In fifth grade, Barbara threatened me to fight in the middle of recess—she fought everybody, and I was a “goody-goody.” I told her she couldn’t cut the line and boss people around during jump rope. I told her to wait her turn, and so she was ready to punch me in the face like another girl the week before. The only thing I could stammer was, “I don’t want to fight yooo!” Then I walked so fast into class as the bell rung, holding my breath the entire way—she never bothered me again.
In seventh grade, a boy asked me out and I said, “no” because I was so shy, and so he retaliated by telling everyone my arm hair was like a gorilla’s. He called me “gorilla” often and to everyone. Little did he know that I secretly liked him too, so I made light of the name-calling scenario by giving him a red stuffed animal gorilla. It was so mortifying—all of it—but he never called me that name again. Case closed.
Identifying the Bully
Bullies come in all forms—physical, emotional, and verbal—and it always stinks to be on the receiving end. What’s even worse is when you watch your kids suffer through it all.
No, you shouldn’t be the police parent or the blind-eye parent either. But what do you do? When do you step in? What if the child tells the teacher and he/she downplays the scenario and does nothing? The most important role as children face new and challenging scenarios is to arm them with the best knowledge to identify, speak up, alert a teacher, discuss with a parent, and trust that the parent will step up when necessary.
When gearing up your kids to return to the back-to-school trenches, parents should first understand my top five keys to effective anti-bully combat.
1. Enable open communication and a trusting environment.
2. Discuss “red flag” rules.
3. Provide the proper tools for self-defense.
4. Empower children to alert and escalate an issue to responsible adults.
5. Know when and how to intervene as a parent.
Teach Them to Talk
As kids move through the ranks in school, there will be many situations that cause your kid grief. From pushing and sharing issues, friendship woes, three’s a crowd, jealousy, name-calling, physical grabbing, taunting, and threatening, most negative behaviors stem from the bully’s personal frustration, and often, a lack of discipline. While some situations are minor, others require immediate attention and action.
One of the most important responsibilities as a parent is to create an honest and open line of communication with your child. This communication may seem trivial when he/she is young, but it may be life-changing through the years. Let your child know that he/she is always free to discuss anything about the day without reprimanding—such as trivial social dilemmas, questionable peer discussion, and concerning situations.
Red Flag Rules
Some situations may be part of learning how to navigate through friendships and those less friendly. Social development is vital for children to positively gain a sense of self-worth, identity, and the power to stop and prevent a negative action for themselves and others.
While it isn’t necessary to “tattle” in every instance, children need to learn the “red flags” of inappropriateness. Always teach and remind your children where to draw the line.
- Physical threatening
- Verbal threats to physically harm
- Aggressive grabbing on the body
- Inappropriate touching or flashing private parts
- Excessive and condescending name-calling
All scenarios need to be discussed thoroughly, especially when kids are young—role playing is the most effective tactic in arming your child understanding and confidence.
Tools of Armor
Sometimes kids can be emotional, moody, and jealous. Does that mean a call to the principal/head master? Absolutely not, when it’s just a friendship issue. Now that they know what to look out for, it’s time to teach them what to do, which is equally important.
One simple phrase, “Have a nice day!” That’s it. If a friend is rude and unreasonable, wish them well and move on. “Don’t be part of their dark cloud. Continue your sunny day and walk away,” I say. He/she can’t get mad at that phrase. Works every time.
Verbal defense is such an important facet of self-worth and self-respect. I’ll never forget how proud I was when my eldest daughter told me about a girl who kept bullying her and calling her “shrimp” and “such a cute little girl like a baby,” continuously. The bully always pushed her way in front of her in line, until that one day when my daughter spoke up.
“My mom said that people come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, and THAT is what makes us beautiful. So why don’t you go and pick on someone your own size!”
The bully sheepishly went to the back of the line and later apologized. Speaking up without a personal attack, but with reason, is so critical. From the time a child is beginning school to upper senior school, it is so crucial to teach how to say some key phrases, such as:
- Don’t touch me!
- Leave me alone!
- That’s not ok.
- We’ll talk when you’re calm/nicer.
Arming your child with a strong verbal shield is key to confronting the bully. The next step is equally important in knowing when and how to request backup support from school teachers and parents.
Your kid comes home crying and torn about an issue. As a parent, you don’t want to micro-manage or swoop in for the save every time. But when is it ok to elevate?
Let mild social issues settle themselves unless it crosses the line and there’s some serious name-calling or physical bullying infractions. Parents then get the green light to step in by navigating through a few suggested contacts.
- Confront the bully’s parent in a team-minded approach to resolve the issue.
- Alert the class teacher for in-class attention.
- Step in with the mommy stink-eye.
- Meet with the head of school.
Did the “mommy stink-eye” catch your eye? Good. This little trick was coined by yours truly, and it’s quite an effective crowd-pleaser among my mom crew. When alerting the bully’s parent isn’t part of your plan, the teacher’s response is weak, and the issue isn’t big enough to escalate to the head of school, what do you do? That’s right, the stink-eye. When I accompany my kid to primary school class and see the snot-faced kid pestering mine, I take action:
- Ask your kid to repeat what the other one did.
- Repeat it just loud enough for the child to “overhear.”
- When the kid turns around to sneak a guilty look at you, give your best look of disapproval and shake your head in dismay. “Don’t worry, I know he/she won’t do that anymore because that’s not ok. It’s never ok to [repeat the bully crime]. Please let me know if it happens again because I know his/her mom well.” Done.
Always remember to trust your instinct. If you see your child coming home particularly angry, moody, or frustrated, get to the bottom of the problem. Discuss options, role play, and always be there for your child to learn from the situation.