“Hey Fatso” “Big nose” “Brown nose” “Toothpick legs” “Dumbo” “This seat is taken.”
Did you make it through childhood without hearing any taunts? Were you ever excluded from a party to which all of your friends were invited? Did anyone roll their eyes when you spoke? Whisper behind your back or even right in front of you? Spread rumors about you?
Experiences like these may still linger in your memory. As an adult, you may look back and wonder what you did to bring on such unwanted attention and what you could have done to end it.
When your children come home upset because they were teased, you may feel as helpless now as you did then. Do you tell them to ignore the comments, to fight back, or to tell an adult? If they follow your advice, will it compound the problems or help to resolve them?
Some children tease because they enjoy watching their target become upset when his buttons are pushed. The more upset the victim becomes, the more the harasser is rewarded. Also, the teaser may enjoy the reaction of observers who often laugh at the expense of the targeted child. This public humiliation can increase the pressure on the tormented child to respond to the comments with skill and confidence.
Your initial response may determine if your child will continue to come to you when he is upset. To start, offer support and understanding to let him know that you believe in him and are “on his side.” Listen to your child’s fears, while gathering information on what happened and what his response was. When your child is calm and receptive, discuss the fact that others often tease because of the reaction they recieve.
What Can Children Do?
If the taunting words fall more toward the teasing end – rather than the bullying end – of the continuum, then the key is to diffuse the attack. Remaining silent and trying to ignore the insult can lead to pent up anger. This resentment can build until children explode in either tears or rage. And trying to “out-tease” the teaser usually just intensifies the fight. What your children can do, however, is learn coping skills, such as employing humor. If they can neutralize the torment without stooping to the aggressor’s level, children will be most effective. Having readily available the tools to take the sting out of the attack can leave your children feeling stronger and more self-assured.
For example, to the comment “You act like a baby,” children can respond with:
- “Yeah, and your point is…”
- “So I’ve noticed.”
- “So what?”
- “Tell me when you get to the funny part.”
- “I heard that one before.”
You can also help your children develop their own responses that feel comfortable to them. They can “rehearse” with you, although daily sibling sparring may provide a fertile practice ground. You can further empower your children by teaching them to use:
- I-messages: “I don’t like it when you roll your eyes when I speak.”
- assertive responses: look the tormentor straight in the eye and answer in a firm voice, “I will not move to another table.”
- self-talk – to help them stay calm and not react emotionally: “I can handle this. I can handle this.”
Additionally, parents can encourage their children to:
- form strong friendships with people who will stand by them.
- learn self-defense (which not only teaches children how to defend themselves, but also increases their confidence so that they don’t feel they have to fight).
- participate in activities that make them feel good about themselves, in which they can excel, and where they can meet children beyond their traditional circles.
When More is Needed
Two situations may require assistance from authority figures. The first involves fighters and the second, bullies. Fighters are those who tend to misunderstand social cues and, therefore, strike out at anyone with or without provocation. They do not care who their victims are and usually have very few friends. Teach your kids that these are children to avoid and that they should stay near yard monitors or move to other games when such fighters are present.
Bullies, in contrast, pick on others because they enjoy seeing the others’ reactions. Bullying is a pattern of repeated intentionally cruel behavior in which a person or group with more power targets someone perceived to have less. These tormenters can be male or female, do not always go away if you ignore them (some may get even more forceful), and may not lack confidence, as once was thought. Frequently, bullies have inflated self-esteem and want to feel more powerful and in control.
Bullying can take different forms. Boys, more than girls, tend to use physical bullying by tripping, shoving, or hitting another. Verbal bullying is the most common type used by both boys and girls and includes cruel criticism, name-calling, racist slurs, intimidating emails or texts, or sexually abusive remarks. The most difficult type of bullying to detect, but often the most devastating, is relational bullying, which diminishes the targeted child’s sense of self through rumors, shunning, ignoring, or excluding. It is most frequently used by girls in the middle-school years and involves rolling of eyes, aggressive stares, frowns, and hostile body language.
Careful to attack when adults are not watching, bullies often select targets who are vulnerable and/or unassertive. While improving interpersonal skills may be helpful to prospective victims, authority figures may be needed to supervise the interactions more closely.
Bullies often appear to be the “good” kids to teachers, so tact needs to be used when you approach other adults such as school personnel. For example:
“I know Joey is a good student and his mother volunteers in the class. So this may seem contrary to your image of him, but Billy says that when Joey is outside at recess, Joey often throws the ball directly at him or tries to trip him as he walks by. I would apppreciate it if you could keep an eye on the boys during recess.”
While you do not want to promote tattling, whose sole purpose is to get the other person into trouble, you must let your kids know that help is available. It is incumbent upon you, and all adults, to keep children safe both physically and emotionally. You need to provide the tools, techniques, and verbal skills for your children to use and offer them opportunities to practice them with you. If these prove inadequate, you need to be ready to assist more directly by going to school personnel for assistance.
Alone, you may not be able to end childhood teasing. As distressing as it is to parents, it will likely remain one of those childhood rites of passage that unfortunately children may have to endure. But you can draw the line and help children feel safe at school, free of bullying and excessive teasing. Equipped with effective skills and supportive adults, your children have a better chance of escaping unscathed.by Deb Cohen, Certified Parenting Educator
For more information about bullying and what you can do to help your child, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
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