Swimming Free and Avoiding the Bait of Bullying

Bullying. After years and years of being tagged as developmental – an inescapable rite of passage of sorts – the word alone now is a rallying cry for parents everywhere who are steadfast in their quest to avert its emotionally devastating effects on their children. Don’t get me wrong – coaching children that bullying is not okay, whether you are the target, the bystander, or the bully should indeed be a galvanizing effort among strong positive adult leaders. We should go after every single incident, and we should loudly and clearly verbalize that the identified behavior is not okay. But we also have to give our children the tools to bounce back because it is virtually impossible for an intervening adult to be present every time an act of bullying might occur.

I am prompted to reflect on this topic after reading Lorraine Duffy Merkl’s “Complaint Box” piece on Camp Bullies in the New York Times. While she legitimately flags her concern that relational aggression is taking place, I think she may have leaped to a conclusion that the camp director was dismissing her when he replied that her daughter should “learn to ignore stuff.” It sounds like there was a counselor, who was trained in conflict resolution, to facilitate the intervention. Children also need opportunities to practice articulating and sorting out their issues. That’s the only way we can truly inoculate them against future verbal assaults.

Child and family therapist Bob Ditter opines, “Bullying is a lazy term. It tells us nothing about specific behavior – what a child is actually doing or saying – that is so hurtful. It is a kind of ‘one-size-fits-all’ label that offers no insight about the meaning or cause of the behavior.” He points out that children today are “extremely verbal” when unraveling issues related to “loyalty, popularity, favoritism or healthy ways to express anger.”

Here’s the hard part to hear: socially aggressive girls “often come from families with a highly competitive parent or older sibling who is also socially aggressive.” We need to model the right behaviors at home, provide appropriate consequences in a non-judgmental way to the offenders, teach our children to cope if they are victims, and definitely coach them not to be bystanders! Practice is imperative to acquire these skills, and children need to learn to navigate on their own through the whitewaters of growing-up stuff.

That’s where camp, of course, becomes an incredible opportunity, because trained, caring counselors can set the asset-building in motion with real-life incidents – but those friendship-enduring skills still must be reinforced and modeled at home, and from the earliest age.

One successful program is aptly named “Bullies to Buddies,” with multiple resources including a book and a game. Some good language that is helpful for reinforcing a tease-free stance:

  • “We don’t do that here.”
  • “That’s not okay.”
  • “How can we make this right?”
  • “What are your options?”

The American Camp Association partners with “Take a Stand,” an important program module designed by Dr. Joel Haber for camps to establish a culture that bullying is inexcusable; it includes both staff training and parenting components.

One of the best children’s book I know is “Simon’s Hook” by Karen Burnett, a story about teases and put-downs with strategies for dealing with bullying – which also are the basic lessons for dealing with life. The story about Simon helps children realize, with a fishing analogy, that they have choices and can “swim free” of feeling helpless, trapped, or powerless.

And that is my overarching call to action: as parents, we cannot leave this job to teachers and counselors only – we need to partner with the professionals and reinforce this empowering coaching, because if our child winds up in a situation with less than optimal adult help, we want to make sure they can unhook themselves from the baited fishing line.

The greatest gifts we can give our children are the tools they need to believe in their own abilities to bounce back from life’s adversities.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Did you ever feel like you weren’t a “free fish” (like Simon) anymore?
  • What are some of the ways you could handle that situation, now that you have read “Simon’s Hook” and know some of Grandma Rose’s suggestions?
  • Let’s name five ways to avoid getting “caught” by teasing.