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Talking to Kids About Bullying

Dec 6, 2017 by

Most people remember getting bullied at some point in their childhood. It could have been the scary girl at the back of the school bus who kept threatening to beat you up, or it could have been a gang of jocks who kept stuffing you in the locker during middle school. They used their words, their fists, or sometimes both. Kids can be mean to each other for a lot of reasons, or sometimes seemingly no reason at all. Either way, it’s a relief to leave that period of our life behind, usually around the time we leave high school and go to college. Sure, people can be mean to you in college, but you usually have more options for avoiding them at that level.

When we have kids, though, we start seeing bullying through a completely different set of eyes, and the pain can be visceral. It’s hard to know what to say to a kid who comes from school upset every day, but you have to say something.

Avoid empty platitudes

Think about your childhood bullying experiences. Did your parents tell you things like “Oh, she’s just jealous?” If so, was that a very helpful thing to hear? Probably not. Looking back, maybe the girl who called you “barfbreath” was jealous of something, but maybe she wasn’t. It can be really hard to know, and even if you’re 100 percent sure about someone’s motivation, it doesn’t mean you’re any closer to solving the problem.

Be especially careful with your daughters. If a boy is throwing dirt in her face or pulling on her pigtails, don’t tell her “That just means he likes you.” Maybe some boys are trying to show affection that way, but you don’t want your daughter to associate mean, cruel behavior with love. You don’t want your son to do that either, but it seems like boys are given a pass for this behavior more often than girls. If someone is trying to flirt with you, they can tease you, but it shouldn’t be done in a hostile or abusive manner. You probably wouldn’t tell a 30-year-old woman that her boyfriend’s uncontrollable jealousy “is only because he cares,” so don’t tell a 10-year-old girl that either.

The value of positive media

Movies, music, TV, and books can show us a lot about who we are, as well as who we’d like to be. For example, the Pixar movie “Inside Out” resonated strongly with a lot of depression sufferers because there was literally a character called Sadness. We feel less alone when we see characters dealing with the same stuff we encounter in our everyday lives. So if your child is dealing with persistent bullying, consider investing in some anti-bullying books for kids. You can read the books together and talk about the message behind them.

Kids ask a lot of questions. It’s their trademark. Some questions are easy to answer, like “Why do I have to go to the dentist?” Questions about things like bullies and divorce and death are harder to answer. The good news is that your child probably isn’t expecting perfect answers. Engage with the topics in a way that’s both age-appropriate and honest, and you’ll be doing a lot better than most parents.

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