Author: The Great Courses Staff
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Police in Deer Park, Texas, have arrested area resident James Olander Peace for slapping a 12-year-old boy in the face, according to a report by Houston’s ABC affiliate. Peace’s wife, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he was defending her daughter from the boy’s bullying. How can we prevent—or at least minimize—bullying centered around our kids?
Peace’s daughter called him for a ride home after the boy and his friends shouted insults at her and pelted her with ice cream and rocks, Peace’s wife said. As Peace drove her home, they passed the boy who had been bullying her and Peace decided to intervene. He stopped his car and shouted at the boy. Then he slapped the boy and threatened to beat him if he told anyone what had happened. Deer Park Police reported that the boy had visible red marks and swelling on his face.
Unfortunately, bullying is very common in schools. The nonprofit organization YouthTruth conducted a survey of 80,000 students which found that roughly one in four students claim to be victims of bullying. Peace dealt with his stepdaughter’s bully directly, and maybe effectively, but Deer Park police said that his actions constitute a felony. There are better approaches to practice if your child is being bullied—or if he or she is the one doing the bullying.
Helping Your Child Withstand Bullies
“When your child comes home upset because some other kid is being mean, first offer a hug and a caring ear,” Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, said. “Several studies have found that having a warm and supportive family can minimize the negative effects of being bullied.”
Next, figure out exactly what’s happening. Your child may not have the full story. “It’s much easier to see what other people did wrong than to recognize our own contribution to a problem,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. “You can try asking your child to trace the course of events. Your child’s teacher may be able to offer some useful information about where or when the meanness occurs and how your child responds.” However, Dr. Kennedy-Moore advises against speaking directly with the other child’s parents. Parents tend to act defensively about their own children.
After learning the full story, react appropriately and discreetly. In a serious bullying case, involve school officials without exposing your child as a tattletale. Alternatively, encourage your child to call out the mean behavior to the bully immediately. Teach your child to laugh at mean comments and to appear unaffected by them. According to Dr. Kennedy-Moore, the old response “I know you are, but what am I?” persists because it throws the insult back at the mean child directly.
Stopping Bullies in Your Home
In the case of James Peace’s stepdaughter, her bully’s parents may or may not have known about their child’s behavior before the incident escalated. In either instance, they probably wouldn’t want their son to be struck by a grown man. So which warning signs should parents look out for?
There are two kinds of aggression. First, reactive aggression refers to sudden, emotional, defensive aggression. “A child feels frustrated and just lashes out,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. When children use reactive aggression, they assume others’ meanness is always deliberate. They also assume that anger is an appropriate method of response. These children benefit from learning to practice empathy and to stop assuming the intent of someone being mean to them. It also helps these children to identify early warning signs when their anger starts to build. This way, they can calm themselves before spiraling out of control.
Second, some children exhibit proactive aggression. “Proactive aggression is cooler and calculated to achieve social power,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. Proactive aggression makes things far more complicated. It becomes a vicious but effective tool in climbing a social ladder. Children using it understand others’ perspectives, but are simply not caring. They deliberately act in self-interest. They lack in compassion, not keeping a cool head. Dr. Kennedy-Moore offers three suggestions.
First, target the bully’s rationalizations. Bullies make excuses for their own behavior and they blame their victims. Put their actions into context and give them a clear picture of what they’re doing. Second, steer their desire for power in a constructive direction. “Encouraging them to work for a cause they care about could give them an opportunity to use their leadership skills for the greater good,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. Third, and finally, appeal to the child’s inner goodness. Sometimes, harsh criticisms lead to the child building walls and making excuses. Start a sentence with “I’m sure you didn’t mean to, but…” According to Dr. Kennedy-Moore, this shows the child that you’re on their side and want to help them, not shame them.
Bullying has many complications, but parents of children across the bullying spectrum can help defuse situations and prevent future incidents.
Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., contributed to this article. Dr. Kennedy-Moore is an author and clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting and childrens’ feelings and friendships in her Princeton, NJ, practice. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Northwestern University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Stony Brook University.