Is your child being bullied at school? As a parent, it can be really hard to know what to tell your child to do about that. Teachers and administrators will do what they can, but most bullies are sneaky, so at the end of the day, it is your kid alone against the bully. The biggest difference you can make is in teaching your child concrete skills for how to respond when bullied.
For conflicts at school, I find using children’s picture books a great place for ideas. One of my favorites is Simon’s Hook; A Story About Teases and Put-downs by Karen Gedig Burnett, illustrated by Laurie Barrows. In Simon’s Hook, Simon’s grandmother tells him a tale about a bunch of fish who learn to “Swim Free” rather than “taking the bait,” ie the insults, being thrown at them. Armed with his new skills, Simon is able to rejoin the kids at the playground who have been making fun of his bad haircut.
Simon learns five “Rules for Being a FREE Fish” from his grandmother’s story.
Rule 1: DO little or nothing! Don’t react!
Interestingly, when I have taught these rules in class, this is the one the kids choose the most. We practice having kids give a blank stare back. Practice this one with your kids over and over. Start by having them insult you and you showing them no reaction. With little kids, you are likely to hear something like, “You’re a poopy face!” Don’t laugh at them. Just look at them as if you didn’t even hear them. Then ask permission to tease them. Ask them for examples of what kinds of hurtful things they have heard and then repeat those things in an exaggeratedly bratty voice, coaching them to do little or nothing. Praise them for how neutral they can keep their face. Have them practice in front of the mirror. You pretend to insult them; they practice staring right through you.
Rule 2: Agree with the hook!
What? Agree with what a bully says? Yes! This one actually works surprisingly well as it completely disarms the kid who is being mean or insensitive. Let’s look at some examples:
Juan: You can’t be my friend!
Rogelio: Okay! I’ll go play with someone else then.
Do you see how Juan was gearing up for a fight and Rogelio just took the wind right out of his sails? If Rogelio really does want to be friends with Juan, he might add, “Maybe we can be friends tomorrow.” Often-even though they don’t say it out loud-younger kids don’t mean, “You can’t be my friend EVER.” They just don’t know how to say that they are mad or that they want to play with someone else that day. Help your kids understand that sometimes other kids don’t mean to be hurtful. They just don’t know how to express their emotions and their needs.
Here’s another example of agreeing with the hook:
Britta: You’re shoes are ugly!
Michelle: I know! I told my mom they are so ugly they should win an ugly prize.
How can you argue with someone who is cheerfully agreeing with you? Note how reference to a disagreement with Mom subtly puts Britta and Michelle on the same team of Kids Whose Moms Just Don’t Get It. Very disarming indeed! Invite your kids to use you as an excuse.
Rule 3: Distract or Change the Subject.
What’s funny about this technique is that it is often kids who might otherwise be socially challenged who are the best at it. Distraction works by just pointing out something that is going on in the environment like, “Hey, wasn’t that the bell?” or “Isn’t that Mr. Jones in the Giant’s hat over there? I wonder if the Giants won their game last night.”
Changing the subject works like this:
Rakesh: Your writing is terrible!
Hiren: Did you know that the heaviest dinosaur was the Brachiosaurus? It weighted around 80 tons. That’s like 17 Elephants. And it was as tall as an 8-story building! That’s way higher than my apartment. My building is only five floors high. I live on the third floor, though. Did you know that…
You can see how by the time Hiren runs out of steam, Rakesh is going to wish he had never said anything!
Kids like the idea of this technique but I have found they actually need to brainstorm a list of possible topics for what to talk about. Here are some ideas a recent class came up with. Help your own kids add to this list:
• the weather
• what happened on a favorite t.v. show this week
• a book they have read recently
• anything that involves a list (kinds of cars, kinds of cereal, what they ate for breakfast this morning, the state capitals, etc.)
• a question (Do you think Mr. Jones is going to give us a pop quiz today?)
• what they did over break or on their last vacation
• anything they happen be obsessed with at the time
The trick to Changing the Subject is to add enough detail that the kid doing the insulting totally forgets what he said in the first place.
Rule 4: Laugh at the hook or make a joke!
Most kids can just laugh. Again, practice it with your kid. First demonstrate: Have them insult you and then just laugh at what they have said. I had one kid who was really good at laughing and then following up with a blank stare. It left the other kids completely nonplussed. They really had no idea how to proceed from there.
Making a joke can be hard because it requires kids to think on their feet, but if you have a very verbal or punny kid, it could be just the tool:
Maria: You’re not a good dancer!
Mira: How did you know Ms. Kltuz was my middle name?
Kevin: You can’t play with us. Go away.
Howard: I can’t? Really? Oh, that’s right! I put on two left feet this morning. That’s okay. Just put me on the left side of the field and I’ll be fine.
This works because kids don’t know how to deal with this kind of answer, and they will let the joker play rather than try to outwit him.
Rule 5: Stay away! Swim in another part of the sea!
Stay away or swim away works well in two circumstances.
One, the kid being mean is truly physical or out of control. Some kids are just not safe. They arrive at school with behavior challenges that are too big for our kids to deal with (chances are the school is struggling, too, to find enough manpower to help that kid). It may mean not getting to do what you want that day, but recess is too short to try to argue with that kind of kid. Help your children to brainstorm a variety of fun things to do so that they have some choices away from the bully. If the bully has picked them as a target, help your kid find some space away-maybe the library or a lunchtime club or helping a teacher out in her classroom.
Yes, I recognize that this is not fair. Your child should be able to play whatever he wants at recess. I am sorry to say, though, that teachers’ eyes cannot be everywhere and yard duty help is usually spread way too thin. Usually the out of sight, out of mind principle comes into play, here: Disappear for a few days, and the bully will direct his attention elsewhere.
Two, sometimes kids just need a break from each other! Help your child understand that we all go through rhythms of how much closeness and how much distance we need at any given time. Often the person being insulting is really just looking for some space. So give it to them! They’ll come around another day. If you have the kind of child who forms very intense, deep attachments to one person, spend some time explaining that that is not everyone’s friendship style. Some people like being friends with a lot of different people. One day they will want to play with you, and another day, they will want to play with someone else. This is not personal: It is just a different personality. Reassure your child that if they can just walk away today, chances are the other child will seek them out again soon.
Kids like these techniques. Having tools in their tool belt, empowers them and allows them to deal with situations quickly and to move on. Furthermore, it very often allows the kid being mean to move on, too, so the whole day gets better for everyone.
Just learning about the skills will not be enough. You will need to provide lots of support and suggestions. You can practice them after the fact, helping your child to imagine the conversation he might have had. If he climbs into the car complaining that So and So did something mean today, ask him if he took the bait. If he did, help him figure out how he might have used each of these techniques to redirect the bully or defuse the situation.
It might feel unfair that your child has to “not take the bait.” No one should be baiting him in the first place, right? But you know and I know the world does not work that way. Surely, you have listened to a friend tell a story about someone being annoying or mean and have counseled, “That’s the kind of person you just have to ignore” or “Why do you let him rile you so?” What you are saying is Why take the bait? Children will feel more in control if they know it is in their power to not take the bait.
If your child is worried about going to school, ask what he thinks might happen and practice over and over lots of different ways he might handle it. Emphasize that deflecting conflict is a skill. He will get better and better and it and it will be easier and easier to know what to do in the moment.