The heart-wrenching stories and startling statistics coming out about bullying are commanding a justified level of concern in parents. With new data revealing that more kids are affected by bullying and cyber-bullying than we ever imagined and that both bullies and victims are at higher risk for suicide, our eyes are opening to the fact that we are faced with a potentially life-threatening situation. So what can we, as parents, do to protect our children against the painful effects of bullying?
First, we can make sure that our children are not exposed to trauma in the home. Child maltreatment of any kind, domestic violence, and neglect can all exacerbate the negative effects of bullying on a child's mental health. In addition to minimizing destructive influences within the family, we can optimize experiences that develop resilience in our children, preparing them for challenges outside the home. Building resilience means strengthening one's ability to effectively cope, adjust, or recover from stress or adversity. As PTSD expert Dr. Donald Meichenbaum has said "Resilience reflects the ability to 'bounce back'... and move from being a victim to being a 'survivor,' and even to becoming a 'thriver.'"
The primary step in helping our children persevere when being bullied or facing other sources of trauma, is equipping them with a solid foundation of emotional resilience by ensuring that they feel accepted at home. It is important that we accept our kids for whoever they are, no matter how different they are from us or from how we expected them to be. When kids feel consistently accepted for who they are, they are more able to cope with stress and adversity.
Dr. Caitlin Ryan, Director of The Family Acceptance Project, has conducted studies showing the impact of family reactions on the well-being of LGB youth. One study reported by NPR "found that the gay, lesbian and bisexual young adults and teens at the highest risk of attempting suicide and having some other health problems are ones who reported a high level of rejection by their families as a result of their sexual orientation." She found that if kids are bullied, being accepted by their families has a buffering effect, making them less susceptible to negative outcomes.
As parents, we want our kids to feel confident within themselves so that even if they experience bullying, they will be able to bounce back. If we want our children to have the ability to adapt to, handle, and overcome the tough situations they will encounter in life, the effort to provide them with these skills needs to begin at home. To learn how we can make this effort, we must understand some of the Dos and Don'ts of building resilience in our children.
Inspire Positive Emotions - It is essential that we provide our kids with opportunities to have positive emotions. This sounds simple, but very often we get distracted by the practicalities of parenting (making sure our kids change their clothes, brush their teeth, and do their homework), that we fail to provide them with enough opportunities to be joyful. We should always encourage our children to find pleasure and humor in life. Although we should never overlook or fail to discuss their struggles, we should consistently provide our kids with a message of hope by offering them situations in which to feel hopeful.
Provide Social Support - The more our children feel like they have a social support from family, the better they will handle negative social interactions outside the home. It's important to make time to talk to our kids and to just be with them. Even if our child is resistant to opening up, we must never give up or throw our hands in the air and write them off. Instead, we should find ways to let them know that we are there for them the minute they are ready to open up.
An extended family circle is also beneficial. Many children aren't comfortable talking to their parents about certain things, but they may have a relative or family friend who they trust, and that relationship should be allowed to flourish. The same holds true for their friendships with kids who have a positive influence on them. If a friend exhibits traits we would like our child to have, we should nurture and encourage that relationship.
Even a child who is isolated from peers will do much better with family support. As he or she struggles to make friends, we can be helpful by exposing them to positive social situations: i.e. volunteering with them, taking them to community events, or participating in activities with friends of ours who have kids around the same age. It is important to facilitate the forming of these social connections without being critical or providing too much pressure.
Find an Area of Interest- Helping our kids to find an area that interests them and that they can excel in is a gift that can shape their lives. Get them involved in activities that help them feel good about themselves. Provide them with a variety of opportunities to find what specifically appeals to them. In doing this, we should be flexible in our expectations of children. If they prefer sketching cartoons, when we'd prefer they were playing the cello, it is important to support them in their excitement. It is also important not to confuse false praise with encouragement. Kids can tell the difference, and they often feel confused when our compliments don't match their accomplishments.
When encouraging their interests, we must also be sure to give children the chance to be physically active. Physical activity is not only enjoyable, but it calms our bodies and makes us more resilient. It also helps us to not develop symptoms when we are stressed.
Teach Mindfulness - Children must be taught how to calm themselves down when falling apart or feeling aggressive. We can teach our children mindfulness practice: techniques for becoming aware of themselves and their emotions, while learning to regulate their reactions. Young children can be read books like The Peaceful Piggy, which introduces them to the benefits of mindfulness and how it can help them develop the ability to remain calm, even in the face of bullying. For further advice on teaching mindfulness to children, parents can read The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive. This book offers techniques for developing mindsight, the ability to see what is going on in our minds and the minds of others. This will help our children to not only be able to recognize their own reactions but to better understand others, so they can more effectively cope with bullies.
Promote Problem Solving Skills - To equip our kids with invaluable problem solving skills, we must show them how to be flexible in their responses. If a child faces a challenging situation, it is important to sit down with them and encourage them to think about the many possible courses of action available and which will yield the most benefit. If, for example, they endure teasing from a friend, what can they do? Is revenge really the best option? Can they joke back and not "take the bait?" Does ignoring it really solve the problem? Should they talk directly to the friend about how the teasing makes them feel? Is it better for an adult to be present in the conversation?
By demonstrating cognitive flexibility in our own reactions, we teach kids not to look at a problem one way, and instead, to see many ways to solve it. We can teach our kids to always ask themselves, how can I seek help? How can I get more social support? And remember, the more adaptive we are in dealing with our own problems, the more adaptive they will be with theirs.
Orient Them Toward Future - Part of ensuring our kids stay hopeful involves orientating them toward the future. Helping them plan for their future doesn't necessarily mean knowing what college they want to get into or how many children they plan to have. But it also doesn't mean helping create a fantasy of a future that could never exist. It is more a matter of helping them focus on their real, everyday goals, such as a desire to visit a certain city or learning to drive a car. It can be a matter of making them aware of a heroic person who inspires them or introducing them to slightly novel situations that open them up to new ideas and opportunities.
Columnist Dan Savage started the "It Gets Better Project" to encourage struggling gay youth to have faith that they can get through bullying and adversity and one day enjoy a happy and fulfilling life. This message is one from which every adolescent can benefit. Teaching our kids that the future holds brightness and possibility is a lesson that can lift them through low times.
Lead by Example - In each of the previous suggestions, it is vital to lead by example. Our telling our kids what to do and how to behave will rarely influence them as much as our showing them how to handle difficult situations. Exposing them to the constructive approaches we take in finding solutions to problems in our lives encourages them to handle matters in a similar way. If we come home complaining about our responsibilities or feeling victimized by our boss, we encourage kids to take the same attitude toward their own challenges. We should always aim to act in a way that is consistent with our values and provide our kids with a model to do the same.
Support Maladaptive Thinking - Negative thoughts contribute to a child's insecurities and low self-esteem. Allowing our children to focus or dwell on a perceived weakness or negative trait is not constructive. Rather, it is productive for us to encourage them to challenge their hostile self-criticisms and self-attacks. This form of maladaptive thinking, which is referred to as the "critical inner voice," will lead a child to feel mentally defeated and victimized by circumstances.
The critical inner voice can contribute to stress, anger, and depression. It can make kids gravitate toward activities that leave them feeling bad and avoid those that make them feel good. It may, for example, encourage them to be isolated, "Don't leave your room. No one out there wants to see you." It can encourage them to act out, "Why even go to class? You'll never amount to anything anyway." Allowing our kids to indulge in ruminating or acting on these critical inner voices can have harmful effects. Instead, encourage them to identify these negative thoughts and challenge them in their actions. Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, a book I co-authored with Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett, provides exercises for identifying and challenging this critical inner voice. When parents learn to do this for themselves, they can then be better role models for their children.
Be Critical, Coddling, or Ignore Issues - We all know the importance of supporting our kids in new challenges. However, when our children take on something new to them, it is often hard to find a balance between pushing them too hard and doing too much for them. Ideally, we should try to put them in slightly novel situations in which they're slightly uncomfortable and we're there to back them up. We don't want to over-push our kids, leading them to feel abandoned or afraid. In this same way, we don't want to overprotect them by speaking for them or stepping in too often, which teaches them to feel dependent or helpless. Most importantly, we should never pretend not to notice that there is a problem. Ignoring the fact that our children are struggling will not encourage them to "man up" and move on. It will only leave them feeling more alone than ever.
Dwell on the Negative - When a child goes through a negative experience, it is important to give them the platform to talk about it. Encourage the child to express what happened and how it made him or her feel. We can help our children resolve any traumas they experience by reframing the experiences, so they can learn from them. This is not to say we should attempt to alter reality or ignore the fact that they were hurt by something. However, the more people mull over painful events or tell themselves stories about being victims, the worse off they are in terms of building resilience.
When it comes to our children, we should in no way promote the idea that the world is unsafe or that change is not possible. Instead, we should tell our kids positive uplifting stories about our own challenges. "I used to be so shy that I sat alone everyday at lunch. Then one day, I made a friend on my baseball team, and slowly I started to feel more and more comfortable talking to him. Then I grew more comfortable talking to other kids. Eventually, I had a close group of friends who never made me feel embarrassed or shy."
Avoid Dealing With Painful Events
When a traumatic event occurs, we shouldn't assist our kids in engaging in avoidant behavior by simply steering clear of anything that reminds them of the occurrence. For example, if our child was once bullied on a certain street, while carrying a certain backpack, we should help them to talk about the experience and help them process their reactions to it. Having them just take another street or throw away the backpack won't resolve the experience in their minds. In fact, avoidant coping strategies will make them less resilient.
Never avoid talking about painful events. One of the biggest challenges in stopping bullying is that many children fail to disclose incidents in which they were abused. When we encourage our kids to talk about bad things that happen to them, we help them make sense out of these experiences. Memories that are not made sense of by being expressed as a coherent narrative can have negative effects on children later in their development. They may start to show behavior problems, increased fears, stress or anger, and become less social. Creating a coherent narrative helps make meaning out of experiences and form a sense of personal agency and closure.
As parents, we may not be able to protect our children from the bullies that exist in the world, but we can help our kids build the resilience required to not allow bullying to have the devastating impact it is capable of having on a child's life. And this will provide them with an essential coping tool they can take with them into adulthood.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on Parenting at PsychAlive - Alive to Parenting
Watch Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Donald Meichenbaum's free Webinar on resilience here