Two of the fundamental emotional needs of all children, according to the work of world-renowned philosopher and psychiatrist Alfred Adler, MD, and the principles of Positive Discipline, are a sense of belonging and a sense of significance. Belonging refers to feeling emotionally connected and part of a group, whether that’s family, a peer group, or the community. Significance is feeling like a capable, contributing member of a group — a family, a peer group, a classroom — and also feeling personally empowered, independent, and in control.
Fostering a sense of belonging and significance in our kids doesn’t have to be a complicated endeavor. It begins with giving them a sufficient dose of positive attention and emotional connection on a daily basis by simply taking ten minutes once or twice a day to be fully present and to get into a child’s world. When children are receiving the positive attention and positive power they need, you can work on holding them accountable for their actions, developing empathy, and familiarizing them with effective conflict-resolution skills. And while it’s never too late to take action, the best prevention for bullying is to begin educating early and continue the practice throughout childhood and adolescence.
In order to arm your child with strategies for peaceful relations in any difficult situation, you’ll need to deliberately train good behavior, respect, coping strategies, and conflict-resolution skills.
First, be sure your kids know that badgering, teasing, shaming, disrespecting, and picking on others are unacceptable — and put a stop to these activities whenever you see them coming from your kids. Make sure they don’t catch you “in the wrong” either — end any tendencies you might have to bully others with teasing or sarcastic comments as well. Even what seems to parents as “just having a little fun” can look threatening to a child.
Be deliberate about training on conflict resolution, as well as how to avoid being a victim of bullying. Pick a time when you and your child can calmly talk through the following techniques (Grab a favorite toy to role-play for young children.):
Rewind and replay. You can start by asking, “Next time you feel angry or powerless, what could you do instead?” Then, hold a mini brainstorming session to come up with some workable solutions, including practicing the words to say. You can apply this to a variety of situations, whether real or hypothetical, to help your child navigate the tricky world of peer relations.
Walking away. The easiest way to avoid a bully is to stay out of his path. Practice walking confidently and calmly around the bully and out of the way. For a child engaged in a conflict that’s spiraling out of control, this might mean saying, “We’ll talk about this more later,” and seeking out a quiet place to cool down.
Using “I feel . . .” statements. A difficult situation or conflict can often benefit from a little understanding. Equip your kids with the ability to use “I feel” statements to describe what they’re thinking and then to invite their peers to do the same. In so doing, they’ll learn to own their feelings and take responsibility for them—a skill that many adults struggle with (for instance, when we spout an accusatory, “You always . . .” or, “You never . . .”). In a disagreement about whose turn it is to use the car this Friday night, for instance, your teen could say, “I feel upset because I have plans and I need the car.” Her brother could reply, “I’m angry because I see you using the car all the time without checking with me first.” This gives kids an easy way to start a conversation rather than a fistfight. Younger kids arguing about a really cool Lego tower that got knocked down could say, “I feel sad because I was really excited about my tower,” or, “I feel mad because you wouldn’t let me play, too.” While you can’t expect this type of maturity to come naturally, you can help your kids develop it with guidance and plenty of patience. With practice, your kids will address conflict with healthy communication rather than a shouting match.
Persistently seeking help. Although in most cases it’s important for kids to learn to work out their problems on their own, Bully showed us that in cases where safety is in question (both emotional and physical), adults are needed. However, Bully also brought up the fact that many adults ignore the problem, feel powerless themselves, or question the seriousness of the situation—and render themselves ineffective. You can train your kids to overcome this at school by playing the part of the tuned-out teacher (again, with Mr. Bear’s help if necessary) and coaching your kids to stick it out until they get the attention and help they need.
With these techniques, you’ll be empowering your kids to put a stop to their own tendencies toward bullying, giving them tools to respond to other bullies, and preparing them for real-life success.
Only practice makes permanent, but soon enough you’ll begin to hear playground stories about peaceful resolutions rather than tyranny.
These steps for a meaningful apology will help you empower your kids as they face high-pressure situations. They’ll become accustomed to taking responsibility for their actions; they’ll tune in to others’ feelings (and their own); and they’ll learn peaceful ways to resolve conflict and respectably coexist with their peers. Your kids will be able to deliver a genuine apology and make amends when they’ve wronged another person. All of this will help keep their own bullying tendencies to a minimum.
If you begin employing these steps and strategies with a young child, you’ll be less likely to raise a bully. And even if you start with a teenager — a teenager who might already be known as a bully — you’ll see results with persistence and patience. You, and your children, can help turn the tide in school hallways, lunchrooms, playing fields, and beyond. The most important thing is to start now — don’t miss a learning opportunity, and don’t let bullying behavior go unchecked.
This essay, like Bully, ends with a challenge. Try these steps in your home this week. Write them on notes and stick them to your mirror or your dashboard to help keep them fresh in your mind. Then, next time you need to step in to an incident your kids can’t work out themselves, take them through the process. Even if it seems strange at first, once you start seeing results, you’ll be hooked — and so will your children. The more kids are held accountable for their actions, and the more they learn to consider the feelings of others and peacefully resolve conflicts, the less bullying we’ll see. Ending bullying starts with one: one person, one action—and one meaningful apology.
Excerpted from the book: BULLY: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents, and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis. Copyright Weinstein Books, 2012. BULLY the movie now available on Blu-Ray.
Want to hear more from Lee? Blogger Casey Mullins recently discussed the film with the director — read her interview here.