Bullying is not something we can ignore.
The unhappy reality is that teasing and bullying are a normal part of the rough and tumble struggle for social status. We are hardwired with the compulsion to compete for belonging and status in our social groups, and sometimes it goes too far.
Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have acknowledged uncharitable behavior toward peers when they were young. Social teasing and cyberbullying is more prevalent and, in some ways, more damaging than physical bullying.
If you can't remember experiencing or witnessing painful social harassment when you were growing up, you have probably repressed it. Some of the victims of teasing and bullying have killed themselves; some have killed others as well. So, what can you do to help your children with this very difficult fact of life?
1. Educate yourself.
Educate yourself about the emotional dynamics of shame and anger as they apply to teasing and bullying. Shame is a normal and powerful emotion that is poorly understood. Understand the pain of shame and the compelling need to belong and feel secure in a group that can make even gentle children tease or bully others and can make even the most talented and likeable potential victims.
2. Accept the facts.
Even the most diligent parents, teachers, and administrators cannot control this behavior entirely, any more than they can control sexual curiosity or curiosity about drugs, though they can work to discourage it. Nor can you protect your child by building a wall around them or keeping them away from all risk situations if you expect them ever to leave home. When they do go out into the world to mix with peers, they will bump up against this social dynamic.
3. Talk it out.
Find ways to talk about these painful emotions with your children. It's best to do this before they go to school or get involved in many activities with peers outside your supervision. Books, movies, and shared stories about your experience as a child as well as their experiences can provide opportunities to talk about what is happening, how they feel about it, and how the other children in the stories feel.
Children have a natural empathy for what others are feeling, but shame is an emotion that compels hiding and avoiding, so they may shy away from expressing it.
4. Teach your children resilience skills.
We teach our children to be brave in many ways. We teach them to be brave eaters, to try new foods and experiences. We teach them to be brave when going to the doctor if they are nervous about getting a shot. We praise them for their courage when they master their fear and shyness and try something difficult. Likewise, we can prepare them to stand up and face the shame that is the bully's threat.
5. Feel their pain.
You may have learned how to shrug off criticism. You may have forgotten the pain of teasing and bullying from your own childhood. But your child is going through it for the first time. If you minimize it by telling them to just ignore it, they will feel you don't understand. Your child needs you to understand their pain in order to talk together about ways to solve the problem.
6. Brainstorm together.
You don't have all the answers. Neither does your child. But together you are a powerful creative team. When your child is able to talk to you about the problem of teasing and bullying, you can shift toward generating ideas that might work. These ideas will be more acceptable if they don't just come from you.
7. Introduce alternatives.
One powerful idea you might introduce, if your child does not come up with it first, is the powerful "hero feeling" that comes from standing up for others. Somehow standing up for a younger sibling or even a smaller stranger allows a child to feel brave. It is a natural response and it counteracts shame. Helping another also makes it easier to ask for help for yourself when it is needed.
8. Emphasize nonviolence.
Emphasize nonviolence and introduce nonviolent heroes like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is not necessary to beat up a bully to win self-respect. It is only necessary not to give in to the feeling of shame. It may be dangerous to humiliate or defeat a bully. Standing up to the threat of shame and being brave does not require violence or physical strength. It requires emotional intelligence.
9. Talk to parents and teachers.
Talk about the problem of teasing and bullying and the solution of resilience with teachers and other parents. The more resilient heroes we have on the playground the less vulnerable all our children will be. Read more about shame and anger and the roots of teasing and bullying at Brock Hansen's website: Change-for-Good.org and in his book Shame and Anger: The Criticism Connection.