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Ask an Expert: How to bully proof your child.

Q: What are the best ways to “bully proof” your kid?

A. Whenever I get this question I cringe a little because so often a parent is really asking how to ensure their kid will never be bullied. Wherever I go, I try to make this distinction clear: You cannot control what other children – or even other adults – do.

There are lots of things schools, communities and families can do to create an environment that makes bullying and harassment less likely – dramatically less likely, in fact. But in the end, to bully proof your kid means to create a kind of mental armor, to make sure your child has defenses and tactics to cope with bullying if and when your child becomes a target.

In essence, it is to combat victimization – the negative effects of bullying – that so many children suffer at the hands of other children (and sometimes adults). For more than a decade, researchers have wondered why some kids bounce back and others become depressed, withdrawn and sometimes suicidal. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But there are things that you can do. Remember this acronym HA HA SO. It stands for:

  • H Help A Assert yourself
  • H Humor A Avoid
  • S Self talk O Own it

Seeking help and knowing how to get help and from whom, is a critical defense mechanism. Talk to your child about who they can count on and role play what it would be like to tell an adult what is going on. Often we think we can’t practice what to do in advance but this is not true. Teaching self-advocacy skills is something all parents should do regularly with their kids. The more a kid has placed themselves in a situation mentally and visualized what they would do if it happened – what they would do first, who they would look for, what they would say, how it would feel to say it, etc., the more “automatic” and comfortable they are doing it when and if it actually happens.

Asserting yourself means learning when to stand up to a bully and when not to. It means looking the bully in the eye and saying, “I don’t like you telling untrue stories about me. Stop doing it.” This strategy should not be used in instances of severe bullying or if the victim could get hurt. Again, this is a form of self-advocacy and should be practiced at home.

Humor is a little harder to use for young children but can be quite effective as kids get older. It is also not very effective if a child is frightened – if you’re scared it’s awfully hard to be funny. (That’s why there’s more than one strategy to have at the ready!) Turning a difficult situation into a funny one is a surprise tactic, which usually catches the bully off guard. Practice good comebacks with your child. This will make it easier to use humor.

Avoidance is the most common strategy used by bullied children, and there’s nothing wrong with actively walking away and refusing to engage with a bully. There is a difference, though, between walking away with confidence and walking away out of fear. Disengagement means walking away with an assertive message. It’s an “I don’t care what you are saying or about to say, I have better things to do and people to see” message through body language. It takes courage and practice, but it is very effective. If a bully perceives that they can’t “get under your skin” then they get very little benefit from the interaction.

Self talk is a way to feel OK about yourself when someone else is putting you down. Encourage your child to imagine a CD that they put on during difficult moments. It plays good thoughts and positive messages. You can help your child by suggesting some positive statements for that mental CD.

“Own it” is a surprise tactic that throws a bully off their game. Owning it means agreeing with the put-down in order to make light of it and laugh at oneself. This strategy is easy to use with older kids and can be very effective if done with confidence, sarcasm and a little swagger. The bully is not expecting the victim to agree. Of course, this strategy is not appropriate when something inherent to a child’s identity, such as heritage, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability is being used as the put-down. Instead, use it when the harassment centers around things more superficial.

Learning the right strategy for different situations takes time and practice but doing so arms your child with something that comes naturally in challenging moments when it is hard to think. As a parent, you want to instill this automatic response.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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