“You’re so fat!” ... “You’re the ugliest person I’ve ever seen!” ... “No one likes you, just go and kill yourself!” ...
Brace yourselves parents. These very words may be said to your child one day. How would you feel? What would you do? Luckily my kids haven’t experienced it... yet. Because let’s face it, it’s bound to happen at some stage. Bullying isn’t going anywhere.
Australian research suggests that up to one in four students has experienced some level of bullying face-to-face and one in five has experienced bullying online.
People are not born bullies, they become bullies. Bullying is a learned behaviour for which adults, society and the media are to blame. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Bullies actions usually mask their own pain, their own anger, their own frustrations or even their own self-loathing. Through verbal, physical and online abuse they are able to project their own feelings and emotions onto others. They want others to feel the way they do. Or they do it to fit in, to gain social stance or just to try and feel better about themselves.
We as parents and carers are our children's first teachers about positive and healthy relationships. It is our responsibility to teach them what is right and wrong and our responsibility to teach them skills that will help prevent, or at least reduce the impact of, bullying.
A parent’s guidance and positive influence does wonders for setting children up to have positive interactions though the course of their life. FACT.
I’ve always shown my kids what compassion and empathy are, from day dot. To me it’s equally as important as teaching them about colours, shapes and what day of the week it is. In my opinion compassion (for self and others) should underpin EVERYTHING we do. It is foundational to all aspects of life and almost certainly goes a long way towards stopping bullying or at least dealing with it when it happens.
I teach my kids that if they ‘bite back’ they are just as bad as the person who lashed out at them. (Some may seriously disagree with me on that and that is totally fine.) But it hasn't always worked, keep reading and you'll see what I mean...
In kindy my son was being hit by a boy in his year level. After he’d said “Stop it!” a few times and tried to walk away, the boy hit him again and my son eventually hit back. Surprise surprise, they both ended up in the Principal’s office. When I asked my son why he hit back his response was “Because he wouldn’t stop and I was angry”. My words went in one ear and out the other and his natural 'instinct' told him to 'fight back'. So here’s how I handled it...
I picked him up from school that day and I am not kidding... I walked him to the local Police Station.
He was scared that he was going to get in massive trouble so I calmed him down and we went inside.
I told the Officer that my son needed to have a chat with someone who could help him understand why we use “gentle hands”. (We all know kids are more likely to listen to other adults than their parents when it comes to this stuff!). The officer was so shocked that a mother would bring her own child in after an episode such as this at school. But he obliged and proceed to chat with my 5 year old as they took a tour of the station – cells and all!
I sat in the waiting area and about 5 minutes later my son came out of the station with a huge smile on his face… lesson learnt and fun had! The officer had taken the time to explain gentle hands to him and had shown him where adults who don’t use gentle hands can end up. It wasn’t to terrify but rather to teach. To date this has never happened again. I even got a “Well done Mum!” from the officer so that reinforcement was nice (and calmed the “I’m a mean mummy” thoughts I was having!).
Below are some things that I do to teach and empower my kids to have healthy relationships with themselves and others, maybe you would like to adopt some of these strategies with your kids…
Show them what compassion is
Don’t just talk it. Walk it. In doing this you are taking massive steps towards not raising a bully. Encouraging them to treat others as they would like to be treated is a huge deal. Teach them to have a warm and caring heart by encouraging kindness. And empathy. Get them to consider, and talk about, how it would feel if it was done to them.
Sticks and stones
This saying can come in handy, obviously with the addition of other supports. Teach your kids that someone simply saying something (“You’re fat”, “You’re ugly” etc) does not make it true. Remind them that a bully’s behaviour says everything about the bully and NOTHING about them.
Help them develop healthy self-love by modelling it
Confidence in themselves, their body and their mind. Watch what you say in front of them about your body, the clothes you wear or the attitudes you adopt about body positivity, relationships and life in general.
Build their self-worth
We do an activity called the 'Love Circle' where we sit in a circle and hold hands and take turns telling each other what we love about each person in our family. We say things like “I love that you are so kind”… “I love that you always make me laugh” and stuff along those lines. My kids love it! They are only 8 and 4 though so it may lose its appeal as they grow up. (EDIT: They are now 10 and 6 and still love it!). But hopefully in time I can adapt the activity to maintain their interest. This activity helps kids to feel valued and loved.
Teach your kids that it is OK to talk about their feelings
This is absolutely critical to establishing trust. Show them that you too are human and that you also have feelings. Let them see you show emotion! Tell them why you feel sad, scared, happy, worried, confident etc. My kids always see my cry when certain news stories come on. I can’t help it. It’s just who I am. But I always use those tears to teach the kids about their world and the people in it. If your child displays signs of having anxiety you might like to check out my article on living with anxiety. It contains several therapeutic tools you can use to help guide and support your child.
Show them that their opinion counts by asking for it
I try and use real life situations to find out what my kids are thinking… I ask them what they feel and why. It might be something they’ve told me that has happened at school or something we saw on the news or out in the community.
Teach them that silence is never the answer when something happens
That is to them or around them. Whatever it is. My kids have always been told that if they can’t talk to me about something they always have my closest friends (who they also know and love) to turn to. Children need to know that they have options and that no matter who they turn to for a chat they can feel safe, loved and supported.
Teach them strategies to deal with bullying behaviours
Have an open conversation about what they think they can do to help themselves. Ask them how confident they would be to use the strategies. Tell them stories of how you managed to overcome nasty behaviour when you were at school. We often talk about how I was teased for having a funny surname at high school or how I had lemons thrown at me when I used to walk home alone from school. Whatever I share with my kids I ALWAYS use humour to lighten the mood and I ALWAYS end the conversation on a positive note so they walk away feel empowered.
Teach them to walk away instead of firing back in anger and regretting it later
Make sure they understand that if they do fight back they are likely to be reprimanded or punished similarly to the instigator, even if their response came from a place of pure frustration rather than anything sinister. Help them learn to RESPOND with love for themselves rather than REACT with hatred for the bully. Show them which response brings wellness and which response brings more pain.
Raise resilient kids!
This is possibly the most important lesson to help your kids learn. Let them fall, stuff up, get scared, lose and cry. Let them come last, not get what they want all the time, fight some of their own battles and work out solutions to some of their own problems. All these speed bumps will prepare them for adult life in the real world. The more you helicopter and cotton wool them the harder their adult life will be. Learning life lessons from an early age is key.
To sum up...
NEVER teach your child to ‘fight back’ or ‘get him’ or ‘sort him out’ (interchangeable with ‘her’ of course). This approach basically pours fuel on the fire and can lead to serious life changing outcomes. Children who are taught to deal with bullying this way can grow to become bullies themselves.
If they are taught that violence is the answer that lesson will be carried into the future and will likely morph into an adult defence that only perpetuates the problem we have with violence in our society today.
I hope some of these tips help you and your children navigate this highly topical issue. It breaks my heart to see and hear what some kids experience at the hands of others. It’s NOT ok and we DON’T have to accept it as part of a normal childhood experience.
Teach your children that they can be called all manner of names.
Told they’re dumb. Ugly. Fat. Or unlovable.
But teach them to be authentic, bold and confident in themselves, despite the poor choices of others!
I hope this article helps. If you’d like to connect with me and find out how I might be able to support you, please feel free to reach out here. I support women Australia wide.
Until next week…
Yours in better mental health,
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Erica has a passion for Women’s Health. She works with women who want to be heard, supported and empowered! Erica is a survivor of many life experiences. A Mum. A travel lover. A green thumb in training and an eternal optimist!