October is National Bullying Prevention Month; around the country, schools, advocates, parent associations, community groups, mental health professionals—just about anyone who cares about nurturing children—step up to increase awareness and education about this important issue.
The issue of bullying can be complex, and takes on different characteristics according to children’s ages. With the help of Stopbullying.gov, we’ve put together some common questions to begin understanding and combating the problem.
What are common signs a child is being bullied?
LAUP Quality Services Specialist Ruby Velasco, a mental health expert, enumerates some behavioral changes to watch for:
- The child always loved school/daycare but now doesn’t want to go.
- He/she complains of bellyaches or headaches before being dropped off at a playdate or preschool.
- He/she no longer want to play with a child he/she once liked, or repeatedly tell you a certain kid is “bothering,” “bugging,” or being mean to him/her.
- He/she suddenly becomes withdrawn, depressed, fearful or clingy. Also if your child makes derogatory remarks about him/herself, like “I’m a loser,” or “No one likes me.”
- Look for unexplained boo-boos. Children are bound to get bumps and bruises when they play, but if your child seems to have more than a normal amount or “forgets” the details of getting hurt, it might warrant a closer look.
How can adults distinguish between bullying and normal developmental behavior?
The overlap of harmless teasing and verbal bullying can be confusing to caregivers who are not trained in detecting cruel intent. LAUP’s Ruby Velasco, suggests these tests:
- Determine if an assertive child is a leader of peers, or just “bossy.” When one child is popular and likeable, they can get into the habit of telling other kids what to do. While this can be the sign of a charismatic leader, in another instance it could indicate a domination problem. Watch closely to see if they’re just trying to get their own way.
- Consider whether the concerning behavior is repetitive. All children will have negative altercations from time to time, requiring adult intervention; that’s normal. Does the child show a repeating pattern of the same inappropriate behavior? Bullies form their habits as early as they’re old enough to establish social connections with peers.
- Consider whether the behavior is exclusionary. Like it or not, there will be a certain amount of teasing and hurt feelings as children test-drive their social skills and make new friends. But when a child begins excluding another (or voicing prejudicial comments) based upon their skin color, weight, ethnicity, or other differences, this calls for attention.
What can teachers and care providers do to prevent bullying?
Early care settings are often the first context outside of a child’s home where children learn how to relate to their peers. By instructing children on pro-social skills, such as sharing, helping, and including others, early education and childcare providers may prevent bullying from occurring, reoccurring, or intensifying.
Adults need to discuss and model positive behavior, set clear rules for behavior, and step-in quickly to stop aggressive behavior or redirect before it occurs. You can also talk about behavior that hurts others and make it clear you value kindness. Roll playing is another effective method: you can help your child explore what he/she can do if he/she is treated in a way that makes him/her uncomfortable or unhappy. At this age children should be taught to say “STOP” and get an adult, and that reporting bullying is NOT tattling.
What about in the home? How can parents support healthy social interactions at daycare/school?
Most importantly, parents have the responsibility to model healthy responses to emotion: If you lose your cool, the child sees one example of how to respond to conflict. If, instead, you respond with empathy and compassion, it helps them develop healthy coping skills. Some other tools include:
- Maintaining an open dialogue between parents and teachers. Communication should include the sharing of social/emotional skills and deficits. The preschool staff have the tools to assess whether a behavior shows normal development, or whether there is cause for concern.
- Having the conversation with your child. Bring up the subject of bullying, even if your child doesn’t. Many will not report interactions; when children are encouraged to honestly express their feelings and opinions in the safety of the home setting, they develop confidence and self-worth, tools that help them cope with peer pressure outside the home.
- Remember, bullying doesn’t have to be extreme to warrant action. It’s never too early to begin reinforcing what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Make sure children understand they need to respect their playmates, and be respected in return. If your child sees a peer being disrespected, empower them to intervene and say, “That’s not okay.”
Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, caregiver or teacher, the role you are playing in your child’s life is immeasurable. It can be hard for children to open-up to adults – so, being proactive and creating pathways for safe dialogue will set the foundation to build your child’s self-esteem and empower them for future social interactions. In all, reminding them you are there to support them and they are not alone is, sometimes, all your child really needs.