The Best Bullying Prevention Is For Parents To Lead By Example
Awareness of childhood bullying has increased dramatically in the 40 years since Dan Olweus, a Swedish psychologist, became the first researcher to systematically investigate the problem. Largely because of worldwide impact of his work, parents today are much more sensitive to the signs and effects of bullying on their children. However, they may not be as conscious of how their own behavior can affect bullying by children.
Bullying is defined as repeated or aggressive behavior against which a child has difficulty defending herself or himself. However, not all unkind behavior is bullying. In fact, teasing and jockeying for status are actually a normal part of childhood and adolescence, and teach young people, through trial and error, important relationship skills for later life. Parents can have an important role in minimizing both unkind behavior and the likelihood of bullying by teaching and modeling positive relationship skills for their children.
Conversation is the first step in the prevention of bullying. A parent who talks about bullying with her or his child for as little as 15 minutes a day increases the probability that their young person will come to them for help and advice. Parents who talk directly about bullying with their teens help them feel supported, learn strategies for responding and increase their ability to stand up for others. Parents can get ideas for starting such conversations from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's free app KnowBullying.
Parents also help prevent bullying when they model tolerance and inclusion of a variety of people and personalities. A parent who actively shows his or her teen how to get along with others and how to deal with disagreements in a respectful, assertive way demonstrates important relationship skills.
To help young people be more inclusive and understanding, parents can encourage them to think of others' perspectives, particularly when a peer is being inappropriate or annoying.
Parents should avoid slurs themselves and instruct their children never to use derogatory terms such as "gay," "retard" or "slut." Even if the person who is being called a derogatory term says "it's no big deal," using these terms is never OK. Cruel words are always a "big deal."
Finally, parents can structure environments to avert bullying before it takes place. One common source of bullying is technology. No young person should have 24-hour unlimited access to smart phones, texting, computers or other digital media. Parents can establish household rules that require teens and children to use computers and tablets in common areas of the house where parents can monitor screens to know what they are seeing and sending.
Parents should also monitor children's texts, apps and computer history for evidence of bullying. Youth who experience cyberbullying are frequently embarrassed and do not tell their parents about their experiences. Teens often continue to use media even when they experience cyberbullying and would be better off disengaging. By the same token, a parent whose teen is the perpetrator of online harassment is equally likely to be in the dark about the child's bad behavior.
A parent concerned that her or his child is the victim of bullying should contact the child's school or officials at other sites where harassment takes place, or, if necessary, contact the police. Parents of victims should not contact parents of bullies directly. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes resources about bullying at StopBullying.gov.
Adults can help children increase their awareness of bullying so they can avoid contributing to it and recognize bullying when they see it. Young people also benefit when they understand how to address bullying behavior assertively and safely.
Children look to their parents and caregivers for advice on tough choices and peer pressure. Parents who talk about and model how to advocate appropriately and safely for vulnerable individuals will help prevent bullying.
Ann Clarkson is a digital parenting education specialist with University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Programs. She writes for several online parenting resources including two UW-Extension publications for parents of teens: eParenting High Tech Kids and Parenthetical. Becky Mather is education coordinator for the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board.