If they haven't already, your kid will meet a bully. Soon. Make no mistake: bullies are in private, public and charter schools. Why do bullies exist?
What are the conditions that cause some people to become bullies while most of us don’t? The combination of insecurity and cowardice are essential components of the bully. These are commodities that may result from anxiety caused by the environment at home and sometimes at school. Insecure children do not necessarily become bullies and begin picking on people weaker than they.
Bullies are made, not born. Don’t babies get the same fresh start at the same place in the same family conditions? Of course they don’t. How small children are handled when they use aggression makes the most difference. Also, girls are as likely to become bullies as boys, but girls bully differently from boys, using relational pressures rather than physical aggression.
Small children display a variety of aggression levels. How their Significant Adults manage the child’s aggression toward others goes a long way to starting a little kid on a path to becoming a bully. For example, research suggests that an aggressive preschooler who has good motor functioning skills or a child who receives physical punishment is more likely to develop into a bully.
Insecurity can be created in children by parents who don’t fully understand or control circumstances that impact their family’s life. For example, a parent who behaves unpredictably can cause insecurity in their child. Excessive uncertainty and continual turmoil causes insecurity. Screamer and Bully Parents create insecurity.
Kids learn quickly enough that parents make mistakes and are not all-powerful, so control what you can. Middle schoolers definitely see their parents’ limitations. As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” You cannot control other families - so do the best you can with yours. If you do that, you will raise a kid who is neither bully nor victim – and that is nothing short of a triumph!
Accept the fact that your child will almost certainly cross paths with a bully at some point. So how can you best equip your middle schooler for the inevitable?
Talk about it. Choosing when to have that conversation should be based on when you feel the time is right. You can consider bringing the subject up by the age of four to six, because your child will likely have been exposed to some form of bullying already. If your kid is a middle schooler and you haven’t had The Bully Conversation yet, do it as soon as possible. Come up with a few scenarios where bullying might occur. Ask them if they’ve had such experiences. While it is recommended that a bullied child tell someone they trust, explore how your child might handle it themselves. Strategize as you discuss possible scenarios, asking, ”What might be the best thing for you to do? OK, if you do that, then what do you think might happen?” Remember, bullying doesn’t simply stop at a certain point in life; it evolves and takes on different forms as we age. Therefore, knowing how to handle a bully is a useful, lifelong skill.
If your advice is, “Tell me about it immediately and I’ll handle it from here,” two things may occur: (a) your taking unilateral action to shut the bully down could have negative consequences which may then cause (b) your child to stop telling you important things for fear of suffering blowback from others. Totally taking over when your child deals with a bully does not help your child learn how to handle the situation when you’re unavailable. If you feel strongly that parental intervention is required, find an adult partner, such as the school principal or a trusted neighbor to discuss action steps with. You will find that adult intervention to stop bullying can be effective, but usually includes mediation with the kids involved.
If your kid is being bullied, you will probably notice by their non-verbal cues. They will seem preoccupied, lose their appetite, have trouble sleeping, and/or want to stay inside and away from other kids. These changes in behavior should alert you that something is amiss. Do your best to stay “in the area” so you’re available when your child decides to open up and talk. It’s OK to ask, “Is everything alright?”, but try not to pester them or demand that they open up. You asked and that signals that you are available for counsel when they feel the time is right to share it with you.
A child who is comfortable with themselves behaves differently from a child who is unsure of themselves. This confident child doesn’t need anyone to say, “You seem confident!” for them to feel confident. That 7th grader might be only 4’10”, but is proud of every inch. You can see it on their face and in their posture. Do not confuse this comfortable confidence with arrogance. Arrogance is “I am better than you, even if you don’t know it.” Confidence is “I’m not better than anyone, but I like who I am and I’m OK with me even if you aren’t.” When someone pokes fun at this child’s shoes, the comfortably confident kid doesn’t react because they know that anyone’s dislike of their shoes is not really their problem – it’s the other kid’s problem.
The child who is confident and comfortable with themselves has no motivation to be a bully and is rarely a victim. As a bystander? The confident kid is more likely to talk others out of conflict and attempt to make peace for everyone. As a parent, you want to nurture and encourage your child to be comfortably confident.
So how do you nurture confidence in your child?
Be fair and clear with your expectations of yourself and them.
Listen actively - you’ll learn something.
Give your kid chances to extend themselves beyond what you think they can do if they think they want to try it.
If they fail, stay calm and focus on what they learned in the process. They already failed, so focus on recovery. How can failing help them do better next time? What good can come from failure?
Remember that failing is a result of trying hard. That’s OK.
Confidence comes when failure occurs and is constructively used to learn and grow from in order to bring about earned triumph. As parent, your role isn’t to stop them from skinning their knee in the first place, but to teach them how to deal with it constructively when they do – exploring together what overcoming a skinned knee does in the long run to build your child’s self-confidence.
©️Copyright by David Samore. This excerpt is from Ecstatic Doom: the Adult's Guide to Middle Schoolers (2023), by David Samore, Ed.D. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.