How Bullying Starts at Home

If you’re like most self-respecting parents, your response to the title of this blog was probably, Not in my home, it doesn’t! I am 100 percent against bullying. I would never condone anything that encourages my children to develop those behaviors.

Until fairly recently, I would have been right there with you in voicing a similar protest. However, since bullying is a topic that is very close to my heart (as you know already if you’re a longtime follower of my blog!), I regularly think about what causes it and how we can prevent it from happening. I have come to the conclusion that kids learn bullying behaviors not only from each other, but also from us, their parents! That’s right. I’m not innocent on this count, and you probably aren’t either. Let me explain.

You might not think of yourself or anyone in your family as a bully (or as someone who is being bullied). But consider this: Bullying doesn’t just happen when someone steals your lunch money or calls you names. In my opinion, it happens anytime another person repeatedly and purposefully lowers your self-confidence, maliciously hurts your credibility, intimidates you, ridicules you, puts you down, and more. Do any of these things hit uncomfortably close to home?

In today’s post, I’d like to share with you some of the ways in which I believe our kids are learning bullying behaviors at home. You may object to my analysis or think that I’m overreacting, but I promise you, children are very observant and impressionable. They pick up on our attitudes and behaviors with uncanny ease, and we often see those attitudes and behaviors magnified in their young lives. With back-to-school season upon us, it’s very important to take an honest look at what goes on in your home to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently modeling or condoning bullying behaviors.

*We bully in our marriages. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but in most marriages there’s a dominant spouse—and that partner isn’t always gentle about getting his or her way. Think about the married couples you know. Chances are, with many of them it’s very obvious who “wears the pants,” as the saying goes. On one end of the spectrum is the stereotypical henpecked husband, whose most commonly uttered phrase is “Yes, dear.” On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the timid wife who is intimidated by her husband and who allows him to make all of the decisions.

Most couples fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but the point is, in our marriages we often use our anger and displeasure to influence our spouses. Unfortunately, even uglier things like name calling, threats (e.g., “I’ll leave you if you don’t do this!”), and abuse sometimes happen as well. Even if you and your spouse make a point of having disagreements and fights when your children aren’t around, don’t fool yourselves: The youngest members of your household see the dynamics between you and your husband or wife. And if bullying behaviors are a part of those dynamics, your children are absorbing them.

*We bully our kids. When a parent tells a child, “Just do what I told you. Why? Because I said so! If you don’t, I’ll take your allowance away,” it’s accepted and considered normal. But now, imagine those words coming out of a child’s mouth as he or she is talking to a classmate. Suddenly, they’re much more shocking, and even menacing.

Can you see how kids take our more authoritarian parenting methods and twist them into bullying behaviors? Yes, of course there are times when, for one reason or another, we must issue commands instead of taking the time to explain to our kids what we want them to do and why it’s important. But I would caution all of my fellow parents to be very careful in how and when you give “orders” to your children. Too many commands along the lines of “Go to bed!”; “Don’t argue!”; “Be quiet!”; and “Never do that again!” and your children will assume that that’s how they should relate to their peers.

*Our kids bully each other. Admit it: In most families, siblings can get away with a level of name calling, put-downs, and conflict that would never be allowed on a sports team or in a school. And often, I’ve noticed, we treat our siblings the same way at age 40 as we did when we were 14. Do your kids see you being put down at family gatherings, for example, or hear you talking about how stupid your younger sister is? Whether you allow your kids to strong-arm each other too much or permit them to see nasty behaviors happening between their adult parents, aunts, and uncles, the fact is, poor relationships between siblings often encourage bullying tendencies in our young people.

*Our kids bully us. Kids bullying their parents? It goes against nature…or so we’d like to believe. But in reality, we let our kids bully us all the time. For example, your teenage son comes home in a bad mood, snaps at you when you ask how his day was, and slams the door to his bedroom when you request that he help you set the table for dinner. You know what you should do: Your son’s behavior was unacceptable, and there ought to be consequences. But you just don’t have the energy for that struggle, so you let him stay in his room and set the table yourself. Essentially, he has just used his surliness to bully you into doing what he didn’t want to do himself.

I could give you more examples of how kids use bad behavior, tears, tantrums, and more to bully their parents, but if you’ve been a mother or father for more than a day, you don’t need me to extrapolate. You know that often, it’s just so much easier to “give in to the terrorist” than it is to confront your child and correct her behavior. But if we allow our kids to manipulate us in this way on a regular basis, we’re teaching them that this is how to get what they want with everyone else in their lives, too.

*Our kids are being entertained by bullying. Throughout childhood, but especially as they reach the teenage years, kids watch popular television shows and movies that are full of examples of kids bullying each other, as well as their parents. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes flicking through the channels on your television.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to point fingers or accuse anyone of terrible parenting practices. I’m a dad myself, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that being a parent is the most challenging job in the world. We will all make many mistakes, despite our best intentions, as we try to raise empathetic, values-centered kids.

Here’s the point I want to make: Since you may not be able to influence what your child is exposed to at school, you must be as vigilant as possible regarding what happens in your own house. Make every effort to ensure that aggressive, mean-spirited, controlling, and dominating behaviors aren’t present in your home, even when you’re frustrated or upset. Remember, your kids will adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and habitual responses that they see you and your spouse exhibiting, regardless of what you tell them is right or wrong. Let’s all commit to being more aware of what we do, say, and allow at home as we continue the fight against bullying!

 

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How NOT to Raise a Bully

In my last post, I explained why I think bullying is “the” problem of our day, and I concluded with the following assertion: We must all make it clear immediately that bullying is simply no longer acceptable. So this week I want to follow up by sharing more thoughts on how not to raise a bully.

*Encourage empathy. Sometimes bullies—kids and adults—don’t always intend to be mean. They just don’t think about the impact their words and actions will have. So, get your kids into the habit of considering how others feel when they’re as young as two or three years old. You can use books, movies, and even real-world situations as tools. For example, if you’re watching a movie in which a character is taunted, press “pause” and ask your children how they think he’s feeling. Also, I’ve seen many wonderful children’s books that talk about sharing, feelings, and kind behavior.

*Help them understand “different.” Kids who are different (from a different culture, a different socioeconomic group, handicapped, etc.) are easy targets for bullies. Teach your kids that “different” doesn’t mean “less than,” and give them the tools to step outside of the box to help them gain understanding and perspective. That might mean checking out a library book about a different culture or encouraging them to attend a religious holiday celebration with a friend who has different beliefs, for example. If you have younger kids, simply go on a walk and point out all the birds you see: red, blue, brown, black, big, small, etc. Explain to your children that all of those differences are beautiful and that the same thing is true when it comes to their classmates.

*Take every opportunity to build their confidence. Many bullies put others down to boost their own low self-confidence and to make themselves feel more powerful. So by letting your kids know that they are valued, loved, and important, you’ll reduce the chances that they’ll try to validate themselves at the expense of others.

*Have “the bullying talk” with your kids and stick to your guns. Make sure that your kids understand the definition of bullying. It’s any action—verbal, physical, or online—that makes someone else feel bad and that happens more than once. Be sure to also point out that bullying can even include “just” passing on a note or text that says something nasty about a classmate. Then, let your children know that just like lying, cheating, or stealing, bullying will not be tolerated in your home. Set up pre-determined consequences, and don’t let anything slide. And when you do get that first call about your child, which you almost certainly will (because kids are kids, and this stuff begins young with just name-calling), be very, very strong! You must nip this behavior in the bud, because the consequences can be far too serious! The fact is, none of us can know what sort of drastic and tragic action a young person may already be considering when our child’s behavior just happens to be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back.

*Share statistics with them. If you feel it’s age appropriate, take a few minutes to research bullying statistics with your child. A quick internet search will reveal a large number of disturbing facts. For instance, here are some statistics from www.bullyingstatistics.org that I also included in my last blog post:

  •  Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims.
  •  Every day, around 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.
  •  Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their non-bullied peers to consider suicide. Most worryingly, the actual suicide rate as a result of bullying is on the rise because technology allows hurtful and cruel behaviors to continue 24/7, long after the school day is over.

Seeing these statistics can prove to your child that bullying isn’t just something that Mom and Dad are needlessly worried about—it’s real, and it’s happening at their schools and to their peers. Reading that their actions might make a peer skip school, for instance (or even worse, kill him or herself), can have a real impact. At this point, it might also be a good idea to explain that we never know what other issues—for example, a parent’s illness—kids might be dealing with on top of being bullied.

*Be involved every day. It’s tempting to think that the best thing we can do for our children is to provide a good life for them. No, I’m not saying you should discount the material things entirely, just that you should also keep in mind that nothing can take the place of what’s truly the most important thing in a child’s development: his parents. Being involved in your kids’ lives on a daily, nitty-gritty basis will allow them to stand the best chance when it comes to making all the right choices (not just avoiding bullying). Also, when you’re involved you can keep an eye on who your children’s friends are. Remember that in terms of our attitude, outlook, and behaviors, we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. So no, you aren’t being too mean or controlling if you don’t allow your child to spend time with a peer who seems to be a negative influence. Instead, encourage your kids to seek out friends who exhibit positive behaviors and healthy attitudes.

*Teach them to intervene when possible. This is essential to fighting bullying today, according to teachers, counselors, and school administrators. Since bullies tend to victimize their peers when adults aren’t around, other young people who see these behaviors happening are the key to making sure that they stop. Encourage your children to step in if they see another child being treated badly—if they are comfortable doing so. If not, make sure your child knows to talk to a teacher or other authority figure when another child is being bullied. Even an anonymous note on a teacher’s desk can open an adult’s eyes to a bad situation. If you learn that your child has helped to stop a bully, treat her like the hero she really is.

*Be a good example. And finally, as I’ve said in several other posts, our kids learn how to live by watching us. So when you tell your kids to always be polite but are rude to a waiter at a restaurant, you’re sending majorly mixed signals. Talk the talk and walk the walk.

Ultimately, there’s no foolproof strategy for raising a child who isn’t a bully. But I do think that these strategies will give you some useful and effective starting points. And most of all, remember that nobody knows your child better—or is more influential in his or her development—than you.

Bullying? Not on My Watch.

Once again, bullying is in the news—this time because of a controversial film that documents the daily lives of five young bullying victims. You’ve probably heard of Bully because of the debate as to whether it should be rated R or PG-13. (I understand that in order to compromise, some profanity was cut from the film to earn it a PG-13 rating.)

Bully painfully exposes the suffering that young people feel when they are tormented—often in shockingly cruel ways—by their peers. In my opinion, what is happening today in terms of bullying is something that everyone in our country needs to brush up on and take very seriously. In fact, I believe that bullying is “the” teenage problem of our day, and that it must be tackled head-on by all of us (just as drunk driving was years ago).

Simply put, allowing bullying to continue in light of what we now know about its consequences is simply unacceptable. Just look at these staggering facts from www.bullyingstatistics.org:

  • Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims.
  • Every day, around 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.
  • Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their non-bullied peers to consider suicide.

Also, research has shown that adults who suffered from childhood bullying live much smaller lives. The fear, social anxiety, shame, low self-esteem, and anger that bullying causes can rear their heads throughout adulthood, often at crucial moments, causing individuals who were once bullied to stick with “easy,” “safe,” or “defensive” choices instead of those that might prove most beneficial. There are also definitive links between childhood bullying and adult depression, anger management problems, and aggression.

And most unfortunately of all, some teens and even preteens actually do kill themselves because of the torment they undergo. I don’t know about you, but when I turn on the news I expect to hear about corporations going bankrupt and politicians caught in scandals. I don’t expect to read fairly frequent headlines these days proclaiming that a teenager has committed suicide because he or she was bullied.

In part because of all of this media attention, schools and communities are providing more and more resources for bullied kids, and they’re also instituting zero-tolerance policies aimed at the bullies themselves. But too many victims are still slipping through the cracks. Why? I think the answer is that we’re putting too much responsibility on the young people we’re trying to protect. Our current approach revolves around requiring kids to tell on each other—and it’s not as effective as we hoped.

For one thing, as I remember from my own days of being victimized, kids who are being bullied often lack the self-esteem and confidence to stand up for themselves and let adults know what’s happening. They also worry that turning a tormentor in will make them new targets or intensify the former level of bullying. It’s also important to note that today’s technology means that bullied kids can never totally escape their tormentors. Vicious and hurtful behavior can continue 24/7 thanks to social media sites, texting, and emails, which increases the sense of powerlessness and fear that bullied children feel.

So, how can we improve the situation? I think that we need to spark a culture-wide revolution that makes bullying behaviors as unacceptable as lying, cheating, stealing, and as I said before, drunk driving. (Hopefully, Bully will help to provide the spark America needs.) Again, think about how MADD dramatically changed the way our country approached driving while intoxicated. Once upon a time, getting behind the wheel after a few drinks was actually fairly common and not that big of a deal (just as bullying has been seen as “a part of growing up”). Now, driving under the influence is reprehensible, unacceptable, and even criminal. Bullying needs to undergo that same sort of image change.

I hope that eventually laws, school policies, and public opinion will totally take away the “cool” image that often comes with a young person’s social power. Until that happens, we can at least make sure that our own kids know bullying is something that will cost them dearly in their own homes. Yes, as parents we all have the responsibility to let our children know in no uncertain terms that bullying behaviors will not be tolerated.

So, if you haven’t had the “bullying talk” with your kids, don’t wait. And make sure they understand exactly what the definition of bullying is (it is whenever one individual feels upset by another at least two times, whether it be physically, verbally, or even “just” via social media or text) and just how serious it—and its effects—can be. And if you think your children are mature enough to handle it, consider seeing Bully with them and using it as a tool to spark discussion. I truly believe that if we all begin to treat bullying as the deadly serious issue it is, meaningful social change can happen soon.