The warm fuzziness of the first few weeks of school is cooling and the strength of the "bullying will not be tolerated" lectures is waning. Come October, social hierarchies emerge and, too often, bullying begins. Low self-esteem, a bad day, months of anguish, suicide – the range of effects victims suffer is devastating. Parents, aware of the perennial pattern, hold their breath, hoping their child isn't targeted.
Bullying: It's been called a national epidemic and it's getting worse. It has been the focus of considerable attention lately as America looks at its widespread, even fatal, impact on youth. But more than media outcry, we need practical tools to combat bullying, empower children, and protect victims.
The problem is that much of the advice we were given when we were young is not only ineffective, it makes things worse.
It's time to rethink our approach.
Don't 'just ignore them'
Take, for example, those erroneous pearls of wisdom: "Just ignore them." Sure, there are times when doing nothing makes sense – for example, if the bully is older or you're in an unsupervised area – but overall, with repeated bullying, ignoring isn't an effective strategy. Bullying is about power, specifically the imbalance of power. If someone can silence you, that's pretty powerful.
Another misguided favorite: "Mind your own business; don't get involved." This condones bullying. It assumes the bully has so much power that it's useless to try to intervene. In fact, the opposite is true.
While 80 to 90 percent of children say it's unpleasant to watch bullying, only 11 percent intervene, according to a 2000 report on bullying by the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution in Toronto.
Here's the kicker, though: When bystanders speak up, half of the time the bully backs down. Even when the behavior doesn't stop, its effect is deflated. As the number of bystanders who speak up increases, the amount of bullying will decrease.
Telling isn't tattling
The ever popular "don't be a tattletale" has sent another harmful message. When we stand by and watch others being hurt, and do nothing, that's somehow deemed a good decision. Instead, we need to repeatedly teach our children the difference between telling and tattling.
Tattling is meant to make someone else look bad; there's not a victim involved. Telling, or reporting, is done in the service of others; it's meant to help someone. It's a heroic thing to stand up for someone who's being hurt, and we need to treat it as such – at home and at school.
'Just be nice' doesn't work
The advice to "just be nice" needs revisiting. Being kind is important, but what's crucial is setting boundaries. Doing so, without being mean, helps make a child "bullyproof."
For example, when a child is the target of a cruel remark, a brief response such as "Why would you say that?" takes the focus off the insult and places it back in the aggressor's lap, without bullying back. Saying something as simple as "Really?" or "Seriously?" can have the same effect. A bored-sounding "whatever," a confused "what?," or humor is often enough to derail an aggressive interaction.
Setting boundaries, building confidence
The strategy, then, is to pick a handful of comebacks and practice them at home with your child. By role-playing potential scenarios, you increase the chances of your child being able to set boundaries at school. This also lets your child know you understand the realities of bully behavior. This critical interaction communicates your expectations and feelings about the topic, and gives your child a conversation to refer back to if problems arise.
Boundary-setting statements in school may also activate the bully's (and the bystander's) conscience, which is often enough to facilitate a change. Just as important, it sends a confident message to bullies, bystanders, and victims alike.
If we empower our children to stand up for themselves – and their friends – they're less likely to be victims and more likely to maintain a balance of power, allowing their confidence to grow.
Patricia Kelley Criswell, a licensed master social worker, is a recognized expert on tween girls and is an instructor at Western Michigan University's School of Social Work. She is also an author and consultant with American Girl Publishing.