When push comes to shove
By BETH J. HARPAZ June 5, 2012 5:59PM
This June 2010 photo provided by Lisa Suhay shows her son Quin Suhay, now 8, tackling Bill Odom, owner of Norfolk Karate Academy in Norfolk, Va., as part of a bullyproofing class that combines jujitsu _ defensive moves only, no punching or kicking _ with verbal strategies. Other types of bullyproofing programs, including guides for parents and regular classroom curricula, seek to make kids less vulnerable to being picked on by teaching them how to deal with teasing and how to make friends. (AP Photo/Lisa Suhay)
Updated: July 7, 2012 8:02AM
Teaching kids to become “bullyproof” is all the rage. Books, videos and websites promise to show parents how to protect their kids from being bullied; school districts are buying curricula with names like “Bully-Proofing Your School.”
But can you really make a child invulnerable to getting picked on? And even if you could, should the burden be on potential victims to learn these skills, rather than on punishing or reforming the bullies?
Parents and educators say when bullyproofing programs are done right, kids can be taught the social and emotional skills they need to avoid becoming victims. But bullyproofing is not just about getting bullies to move on to a different target. It’s also about creating a culture of kindness, and encouraging kids to develop strong friendships that can prevent the social isolation sometimes caused by extreme bullying.
Who’s got your back?
Bullies “sniff out kids who lack connections or who are isolated because of depression, mental health issues, disabilities or differences in size and shape,” said Malcolm Smith, a family education and policy specialist at the University of New Hampshire . “So if you’re worried about your child being a victim, the best thing a parent can do from a very young age, is ask, ‘Who’s got your back? When you’re on the bus, when you’re in the hall, who’s got your back?’ If they can’t name someone, you should help them establish connections to their peers.”
Work on reactions
Psychologist Joel Haber, a consultant on the recent documentary “Bully,” says, “Most kids can learn skills to make themselves less likely to have the big reactions” that feed bullies.
“Let’s say you’re one of those kids who, when I make fun of your clothes, you get really angry and dramatic. If I taught you in a role-play situation to react differently, even if you felt upset inside, you would get a totally different reaction from the bully. And if you saw that kids wouldn’t tease you, your confidence would go up,” said Haber
One way parents can help is to normalize conversations about school social life . Don’t just ask “How was school today?” Ask, “Who’d you have lunch with, who’d you sit with, who’d you play with, what happens on the bus, do you ever notice kids getting teased or excluded?” advises Haber, who offers other bullyproofing tips at RespectU.com .
Better body language
Bullies “feed on the body language of fear. It’s a physical reaction — how the victims hold their head and shoulders, the tone of voice,” said Jim Bisenius, a therapist who teaches the “Bully-Proofing Youth” program .
Teaching a kid to appear confident physically can sometimes be easier to teach than verbal skills, Bisenius said. “If a kid who’s never been mean in his life tries to fake it, or tries to outdo a bully with a verbal comeback, the bully sees right through that.”
Lisa Suhay said her 8-year-old son Quin was helped by Gracie Bullyproof, a martial arts program that combines verbal strategies with defensive jujitsu moves. Quin had been bullied so much on the playground that Suhay stopped taking him there. But she decided to give the park one last try after he completed the Gracie training.
No sooner did Quin begin playing on a pirate ship than a bigger boy knocked him down and ordered him to leave. But this time, Quin grabbed the other kid around the waist “and landed on him like a big mattress, all while saying, ‘That was an incredibly bad idea you just had, but I’m not afraid of you.’” The other boy swung again, and Quin took him down again, then asked, “Now do you want to play nice?” They played pirates for the rest of the afternoon.
“It’s about respect and self-confidence,” said Suhay. “You’re not teaching them to beat up the bully. But they’re not cowering. ”
How NOT to raise a bully
The classic bully profile is a child who was neglected, abused, or raised in an authoritarian home where punishment was the norm. But lack of discipline is just as bad: Children who have no boundaries, who feel entitled to whatever they want, can also become bullies.
Smith fears that misguided efforts to boost kids’ self-esteem have produced a “sense of entitlement that we’ve never seen before.” He worries that we’re raising “the meanest generation” and says schools and parents must create a culture where meanness is not tolerated. “Kindness, empathy and giving — you can teach those things.”
Some kids who bully need help learning to read social cues. “If I tease you and you cry, most kids will realize they crossed a line and will apologize, but if I’m a bully, I want more power, more status, and I see there’s an opportunity to go after you,” said Haber. “If you see your child bullying a child, the child not only has to apologize but do something nice. ”
Optimism about change
Given what Smith calls “a history of failure” in reducing bullying, it’s easy to be cynical about whether bullyproofing can work. At one time, bullies were seen as having low self-esteem; now they’re seen as narcissists who think they’re superior.
But experts are hopeful about this new generation of bullyproofing programs, which teach social and emotional skills while promoting a caring school culture. Susan Swearer Napolitano, a psychologist and co-director of the Bullying Research Network, says, “If these programs are implemented with fidelity and the messages are consistently communicated , then bullying prevention and intervention programs can help change the culture of bullying behaviors. However, ultimately it’s about people treating each other with kindness and respect that will stop bullying.”