How do we raise our children that they do not end up being bullied? Is it really just about sending them to self-defense classes or reminding them they can always talk to their teacher about anything?
Ken Rigby, a well-known researcher on school bullying, describes bullying as repeated psychological or physical oppression of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons. Dan Olweus, a research professor of psychology, and Andrew Mellor, an educator and author, also noted that these aggressive behaviors should not only happen repeatedly, but it should also make it difficult for the student being bullied to defend himself or herself. This particular oppression or aggression can take the form of hurtful words, of harsh physical contact, and or emotional type.
Among the many things that can be done to teach a child to protect himself or herself from a bully, the one that stands out for me, after years of teaching and counseling, is the one I consider the best: to teach him or her how to have a very strong and firm self-concept, or someone who knows himself pretty well.
Self-concept is generally thought of as our individual perceptions of our behavior, abilities, and unique characteristics. It is essentially a mental picture of who we are as a person, according to author and psychology expert Kendra Cherry. What the bully can usually smell in its victim is a poor self-concept, which, on the outside, is seen as fear. A person who knows who he or she is cannot be easily shaken by the taunts and teasing of even the worst bully. If he is comfortable and has accepted that he is fat, for instance, he could as easily shrug off being called “Fat boy!” (It does not mean it doesn't hurt.)
A child with firm self-concept knows whether an act done to him is acceptable behavior. He knows whether something is already out of line. When a child has a poor self-concept, on the other hand, he can be easily swayed into thinking what the bully wants him or her to believe — that he is good for nothing and he deserves the maltreatment. Such thinking paralyzes a child into thinking that even telling on their bullies is a sign of weakness and of surrender and that usually is why they rarely do so.
Parents usually overlook the importance of affirming and coaching their adolescent daughters and sons during the tumultuous period of puberty, a time when the child’s identity is racked many external and internal changes. They might forget the possibility that their ultra-confident girl, who recited “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in their family reunion when she was 6, could actually morph into an insecure 13-year-old with bouts of self-doubt over pimples or have issues of wanting to belong. Such things can be possible depending on the influence children are exposed to and also the type of temperament they do have.
What are the concrete ways to build self-concept in teenagers especially during the ages of 13 to 15?
Help your teen accept his or her own physical qualities — both their best features and their not-so-best.
Bullies love to single out kids who are different. Note that even your very handsome son may not be acceptable in a teenage world where he is the only one who holds that title. So, yes, he can also feel insecure about something he rightly owns — his physical handsomeness. The insecure bully will never want anyone to be more handsome or more pretty.
Having teenagers accept their physical qualities in puberty — their awkward increase in height, the sudden drop in the timbre of their voice, the overly significant or apparent smallness of their growing breasts and so on — starts with seeing others, especially their parents and siblings, accepting who they are despite these changes. Teenagers engage in a heightened awareness called adolescent egocentrism during this time. It means an intense focus on themselves.
A little extra assurance that their pimples will not stay permanent on their faces, for instance, will help them to stop being overly worried about it. That additional worry over pimply faces or flat chests may spark taunts from a bully, which can be easily deflected with a smile if, even at the height of everything physically awkward, they are able to show how much they love their bodies just the same.
Have your child understand that people have different opinions about different things including on them.
Teach them how to process the feedback they received by cross-checking it with their circle of trusted people who know them well (ideally, that's you, his family, and a good barkada). The opinion of the people who have known them since birth or for many years is far more valid than a person whom they have just met and who might be riddled with a lot of negativity and envy. That they are not everyone’s cup of tea is a good idea that can help them accept criticism and the diversity of people they will meet.
Let your child know and feel he has worth by respecting him.
He has to have this well in place first at home. Bullies are people who would love to have power over other people. Among school bullies, this particular power play is seen in demands to do errands or actions that are often out of line.
The bully usually takes advantage of another child’s need that they have the power to bestow (i.e. money, fame or the feeling of belongingness). They may also withhold something that the child already has (i.e., money, status or good esteem of others) in exchange for the chance to hurt him or to put him in a much lower or humiliating position. A child who has been told he has worth and that no one has the right to disrespect him or deprive him of his powers will know how to squirm out of bullying situations.
Teach your child the right words to say when a bully confronts him.
The use of the pronoun “I” is compelling and should be used together with a firm voice and good eye contact. For instance, “I cannot give you my lunch as this is my lunch.”
Remind your child not to lie for anyone.
Then, you, parent, need to show you are willing to listen so they will tell you the truth. A bullied child has the tendency to hide the scars or bruises that result from the physical harm inflicted on him. He can come up with the most outrageous of excuses such as falling by the stairs or getting hurt accidentally during a game at recess. When he has resorted to these, it means he has entered into the bully’s world of fear.
A secure child knows no one has the right to hurt him and so will not think of lying in behalf of his bully.
Act as your teen's coach.
They really want more of “Let me do this for myself, Dad. Just let me know what to do, Mom. Don’t do it for me. I want to be able to tell myself I was able to learn how to handle this kind of situation by myself but with a lot of coaching and assurance from you.”
Teenagers want to prove (and test) what they are made of. It is not likely to be the most straightforward strategy for you, but it's a powerful one. Your child will be more empowered than ever before and will move out of the shadow of being a victim to that of being a self-assured child.
The key to using all these strategies is an open, honest and understanding relationship between parents and children where the latter can actually communicate their raw feelings of weakness, frustration, anxiousness or helplessness.
There are three different types of approaches parents often resort to when their child is bullied:
- There is the parent who tells his children to toughen it up for a world where bullying experiences may never end — so ignore them.
- There is one who is quick to solve problems on the child's behalf by bullying his child’s bully or complaining to everyone in the school.
- There is the parent is one who goads his children for being such softies.
Don't be any of the parents above. Instead, be the parent who your child will run to because they know you will listen. Be the parent who knows how to build his child’s self-concept, so he is armed with resilience and inner strength.
Therese Pelias has been teaching for 23 years, which includes five years of counseling teenagers and 10 years of being a professor of Child Development and Education. She currently teaches junior high school.