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To Stop Bullying in Children, Show Them How to Get Along

Why should children change bullying behavior when they see it rewarded?

This week, there are increased anecdotal reports of children openly taunting others at school. In Kansas, a high school suspended two White boys for ripping a hijab off a fellow student. When asked why they did it, one boy answered, “Because she’s about to get kicked out anyway…”1 In Utah, two parents reported seeing two kindergartners tell a Hispanic classmate that he would be going back to Mexico.2

A survey of 2,000 teachers conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April, 2016 found that bullying in schools seemed to be increasing.3 A majority of the teachers said that children who are immigrants or children of immigrants are fearful, and that a third of the teachers have seen an increase in anti-immigrant, and uncivil discourse.

Bullying among children and youth has been a concern for a long time. We know that the effects of bullying can be disastrous. Research has tied bullying to a host of unwanted outcomes, like poor school performance, depression, and in extreme cases, suicide. As a rising and significant public health problem, bullying affects millions of adolescents. About 1 in 5 students reports being affected by physical bullying, and over half have experienced verbal bullying. Around the same percentage of students say they have been bullied on school property.4

How do we help our children and youth to cease this behavior? We can consequent it, and should, but ultimately, if they see that those in power say these things what message does that send? It is always important for adults to model the behavior they want children to display.

Parents are asking: what should we say to our children? That is a good question, but there is one that precedes it: what should we show our children in how we react? Here are a few tips:

  1. Even if you feel helpless, disappointed, or scared, it is important to show your children the brave side of yourself—the one that cleans up messes, no matter how ugly.
  2. Keep going; stick to the structure of your life and your child’s life. Nothing will be accomplished by retreating—you both will feel worse.
  3. Support the rules. All states have rules against bullying.
  4. Tell your children that you love them and that a big part of being a parent is to help them become the most caring person they can be.
  5. Stress that it is important to be kind to others, even when the kindness is not returned.

There are also some innovative new methods to combat bullying. Earlier this year, colleagues and I published a paper5 on a computer-based program that can improve healthy relationship skills among high-school-aged youth. Called StandUp, the program begins by assessing attitudes toward bullying and whether the youth has engaged in bullying and/or been bullied. Many youth are both bullies and victims, which is a poor predictor of future adjustment.

After completing measures, StandUp uses a computer platform to “talk” youth through their choices about how to get along with others. Over three sessions given a month apart, students reported decreasing their passive bystander behavior and increasing the use of healthy relationship skills, such as listening to a person’s point of view with the goal of understanding. The materials used in the program show peers and adults in video clips discussing what to do and showing how to do it.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to bullying, the question is: Why should children change their behavior when they see it rewarded? Youth are susceptible to incentives. We need to find a better incentive to encourage them to do the right thing. Earning the trust and respect of important peers and adults in their lives who do not bully would be a good place to start.





(4) Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among US youth. JAMA, 285, 2094–2100.

(5) Timmons-Mitchell, J., Levesque, D.A., Harris, L. A., Flannery, D. J., & Falcone, T. (2016). Pilot Test of StandUp, an Online School-Based Bullying Prevention Program , Children & Schools doi: 10.1093/cs/cdw010.