Here at Chez Tayler we are currently managing a couple of situations where one of my kids feels picked on or bullied. This is nothing new. We deal with iterations of this almost every year. We’ve also dealt with situations where I needed to teach my kids not be mean to others. In helping my kids analyze their experiences and formulate strategies, I’ve realized that many of these strategies are fairly universally applicable. So I am going to offer them to the internet as tools for dealing with bullying.
Before I begin talking strategies, I feel it is important to clarify that not every negative social interaction is bullying. Bullying is persistent and there is usually a power differential. If the kids have roughly equal social status you can get all sorts of nasty conflict, but it is not quite the same as bullying. What gets fascinating is that sometimes two kids both feel like they’re being bullied because they perceive the other person as more powerful and popular than they are. Some of the strategies below address true bullying, others are more appropriate to other sorts of social conflicts. I’m going to put them all down, because I can’t be certain which strategy will be most helpful in a given situation. Please be careful and cautious, bully situations sometimes get worse for a time as the bully lashes out at the social shift. If there is any risk of physical danger, get allies–adults, teachers, other parents, friends, people who will help keep you or your child safe.
1. Lay Low. This sounds like the common, and often useless, advice “just ignore it and the bully will stop,” but it is not quite the same thing. Laying low is not hiding and waiting. It is lowering your visibility for awhile to give you space to pay attention to some of the other strategies on this list. Avoid the places you’re likely to see the bully, try not to draw attention. If you are a target of opportunity, or the bullying is taking place in a particular social context, laying low may be all that is necessary to defuse it. This is why the “ignore it” advice still gets handed around. Sometimes it works. Laying low can also resolve social conflicts that are not actually bullying. However if a bully is deliberately seeking victims, this may shift the target, but will not eliminate the behavior; other strategies have to be used.
2. Identify allies. True allies are people you trust to listen and act fairly, not just people who will always take your side. If people only choose sides, you find yourself in the middle of a West Side Story conflict; two groups ready for battle. In theory the staff at the school are impartial people, who will judge fairly. It is not always the case. Look around at how other people are reacting to the bullying. You’ll likely notice some people who do not like it but are not saying anything. These could be allies. Parents should be allies for their kids. Listen in detail, don’t get instantly outraged and defensive. There are two sides to every story and until you know both sides, you are not ready to aim your outrage at the most appropriate target.
3. Identify Causes. Another common bit of advice is that bullies are actually scared inside. This has truth in it. Most bullying is not deliberately malicious for maliciousness sake. It is immature personalities flailing around trying to defend themselves from social harm or to scrabble themselves into a better social position. Some harmful behavior is just inconsiderate and clueless. Feelings of insecurity are a huge driving force for meanness. Figuring out where the hurtful behavior comes from does not necessarily make it hurt less, but it definitely strengthens the person being hurt. It gives you a chance to come up with ideas of how to change the social context. Often clues to the shape of the pain are embedded in the bullying itself. For example: the insecure girl seeks to tear down another girl who she perceives as a competitor. She is trying to push her insecurity off onto someone else.
4. Risk Assessment. Sit down in a safe place to figure out why the things the bully did hurt. Is it physical injury? Is it that you’re afraid that other people will believe the bully’s words? Figure out what the bully has power to damage that matters to you. This lets you focus on undermining the power of the bully carefully and consistently. It gives you specific aspects of the bully situation that you can focus on and untangle. Also spend some time thinking through what power you have. What allies can you bring into play? What new allies can you acquire? What consequences will there be if you take action? What can you do to remove the power of the bully over the things that matter to you? Identifying what you’re most afraid of and what you most want to salvage from the situation helps you better assess what you are willing to risk in order to make the bullying stop. When the bully has no power over anything that matters to you, the bully becomes irrelevant.
5. Extinguishing Behavior. Most bullies are not very self-aware. This means that they can be experimental subjects like Pavlov’s dogs responding to stimulus and rewards. Once you’ve identified some causes and the risks, you can begin to remove rewards for behavior you don’t want and add them for things you do. A boy pulls the girl’s hair because he likes to hear her shriek and he wants her attention. She can begin by stifling her shriek and turning away instead of turning toward. If she also rewards him with attention for a positive behavior, like holding the door open, then the boy will shift his behavior to match the rewards he wants. This tactic works best when applied slowly and subtly. It is particularly effective if allies are part of the plan. Five people working in concert to eliminate an unwanted behavior can make it vanish quickly. Be aware that extinguishing one behavior may make a new unpleasant behavior emerge.
6. Keep Records. I add this one with caution, because for the most part we should let go of the small social harms we receive rather than holding on to them. But if you are dealing with a true bully, someone who persistently tries to undermine you or harm you, then this one is critical. Employ it when the victim is at serious risk of physical or emotional harm. Write down information about bullying incidents, what was said, where it happened, who witnessed it, any proof you have that the incident occurred. These records are first for you, to help you identify patterns. Second they function as evidence if you have to convince someone in authority that they must act against the bully. I do not recommend that children be the ones to keep records. Parents should encourage the kids to tell the stories, but parents keep the records. Do not let the bully know about the records. If the situation resolves, stow the records and let it go.
I know there are other strategies out there, but thus far circling through these has been enough to empower my kids to handle their social conflicts. If you have additional thoughts and strategies, I’d love to see them in the comments.