Mean Kids

Chatter and laughter filled the girls' locker room after gym class. Doors slammed shut, and some girls ran off to their next class.

Sarah hurriedly jammed her chubby arms into her undershirt and then fought to pull her slip over her full hips. She heard the click of a camera shutter and looked up. With a smug grin, Elizabeth was admiring the photo she had just taken with her phone.

"Going live in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1," Elizabeth said and pushed send.

A group of girls giggled as Sarah looked on. Elizabeth gave Sarah one last Cheshire grin before turning and walking out.

Technology drastically changed the bullying culture. Where rumors and threats used to occur on the playground, bullying now happens within social media, as well as in traditional social settings.

A study from isafe.org found that 42 percent of children have been bullied online, and one in four have had it happen more than once.

The reality is that bullying is a part of the everyday world in which our kids are living. Although bullying has been around for centuries, thanks to technology, bullies now use old and new ways to hurt their victims. It's essential that parents know they are not helpless — they can guide their kids through the childhood culture of bullying.

Be aware

We can view the problem of bullying through three lenses: the bullied, the bully and the bystander. These roles are somewhat fluid, and a child can potentially take on all three roles at different times or in different settings. I have heard many stories of children who were bullied in the home by an older sibling or over-controlling parent — only to become the bully in the classroom or on the field. Both environment and group dynamics influence the roles that kids end up playing in the bullying cycle.

Parents need to be aware of the warning signs of bullying. When a child is suddenly silent, the quiet can signify a deeper issue. Other signs of being bullied include poor grades, withdrawal, avoiding certain people or situations, depression or sadness.

Our oldest son, Nick, was in third grade when my wife, Karen, and I noticed some things that were unusual. When asked about his day, Nick would typically launch into a play-by-play description. But one evening at dinner when Nick simply said that his day was "good," I knew something was going on. Nick explained how he was chosen as the only robber in the game of cops and robbers at recess time. I immediately saw this as a possible bullying situation.

I called the school counselor and asked if I could observe what was happening during recess. My suspicions confirmed, I explained to Nick that night that I saw what had happened on the playground. Shame filled his face, and after a couple of emotional moments, we started a discussion about bullying.

So what can parents do to help their children end the bullying cycle, regardless of their role?

Those who are bullied

Children need an environment of emotional safety where they can trust you enough to share everything. Communication with your child is vital. Ask specific questions and watch for dynamics that seem unhealthy or unusual.

If your child shares with you that he is being bullied, don't minimize the situation. He needs to know you'll listen to him, and he needs to hear you affirm how much you love him. Let your child know that you see his true value, which is not based on performance or image.

To help your child deal with a bully, consider role-playing with your child, equipping him with effective responses based on his natural disposition.

Or if the bullying is happening online, you can draft a contract that establishes boundaries for social media usage and clearly defines for your child what online behaviors constitute bullying. Be sure your child understands that he has a responsibility to alert an adult if bullying happens.

Ultimately, if you feel your child is unable to handle a bullying situation, consider contacting those in authority and asking about bullying policies.

Those who are bullying

It can be devastating for a parent to learn that a son or daughter is the bully in a social situation. The signs that your child may be a bully include poor anger management, quick frustration at circumstances or with people, aggressive behavior with other children and an obsession with popularity.

Just as the victim of bullying needs her value affirmed, so the bully needs assurance of your unconditional love. Talk with your child. Explore her feelings and how she sees herself. Find out what social pressures or group dynamics may be leading to unhealthy issues of power and control. Teaching your child coping skills can minimize the opportunity for bullying to occur.

Make sure your child clearly understands what constitutes bullying — you might have different perspectives. Next, set clear expectations and boundaries for your child. Explain that you will continue to ask about her social interactions and monitor her online activities, clarifying the consequences to be enforced if bullying happens again. Restitution can pave the way for reconciliation as you help your child overcome her bullying tendencies. I have seen firsthand the healing power of a bully making amends to her victim — friendship cannot be mandated, but apologies can be required.

Also, be intentional about providing opportunities to teach your child empathy and compassion. Look for ways to help him resolve conflict with siblings that do not allow any form of physical or verbal aggression. Coaching all the siblings in a family is a great way to make certain that both bullied and bullying kids understand healthy conflict resolution.

But if you feel this problem with bullying is bigger than what you or the school can handle, don't hesitate to seek professional help.

Empowering the bystander

Edmund Burke, an Irish-born British statesman, is quoted as having said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Unfortunately, bystanders are often guilty of doing nothing.

The role of the bystander is where the power of bullying truly lives and dies, because bystanders often have the ability to influence the dynamics of their peer group.

Encourage your child to help create a safe environment among peers by standing up for the bullied and creating positive pressure that does not tolerate bullying.

Ask your child if he sees bullying at school and, if so, how he responds to it. Empower your child to take a stand against bullying by understanding why his role as a bystander is important. And then offer your child specific names and numbers of people to contact for help.

Whether your child is the bullied, the bully or the bystander, equip him to stop the injustice and destruction of bullying.

Roy Baldwin is a former director of parenting and youth outreach at Focus on the Family.

This article first appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of Focus on the Family’s Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2013 Focus on the Family.

Next in this Series: Creating Monsters

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