When 8-year-old Allison started coming home from school visibly upset and without her usual energy, her parents felt certain something was bothering her. They soon learned they were right: Two girls in Allison’s class had recently begun teasing her. At first, Allison’s parents felt powerless. They knew they’d need to equip her with strategies to cope with, and ultimately overcome, the bullying. But how?
A new school year can also be when many children experience bullying for the very first time. Unfortunately, kids who have complex medical needs can become easy victims of peers’ teasing and taunting. But any child — even typically developing kids — can struggle with bullying.
When does teasing cross the line to full-blown bullying? “Although all teasing has an element that can be hurtful,” explains Dianne Burd, manager of Child and Family Services at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, “there’s a continuum that goes from gentle teasing to bullying. What may seem gentle to one child — knocking hats off or unkind words — may feel like bullying to a more vulnerable individual.”
Bullying is more calculated, intense and persistent than teasing. In some cases, it can be a learned behavior—from TV shows, computer games, or family members. If the teasing isn’t too intense, these strategies may help. But if it persists or worsens, parents shouldn’t hesitate to intervene.
- Take charge: Your child can’t control the teasers, but can control his response. Advise your child not to engage with the teasers—and if possible, walk away. Ignoring teasing may make it worse for a while, but when bullies see that teasing no longer works, it will no longer be “fun.”
- Stay calm. Kids who tease want to see that they’re bothering your child. Encourage her to take some deep breaths or count to 10.
- Reject the teasing: Just because someone says something in a loud voice doesn’t mean your child has to accept it. Tell your child to think of the words as rubber balls that bounce off him, or to imagine he has a shield that deflects mean words.
- Say “So?”: “So?” is a way of saying that teasing doesn’t matter. If your child sends the message that she isn’t scared or bothered, the bully might back off.
- Stay in a group: Bullies tend to pick on kids who are alone. Encourage your child to stay away from kids who tease, if possible, and to find people who share his interests. Having even one good, supportive friend can help.
- Play it safe: Emphasize that it’s okay to ask for help. If your child has told the teaser to stop, and the teasing continues or worsens, or if it becomes physical, she should tell an adult right away.
Parents never want to see their children struggle with teasing or bullying. Instead of feeling helpless, use the issue as an opportunity to start a classroom conversation about friendship and kindness. A new book for elementary-aged students, called “It’s Okay to Ask,” is an ideal tool to begin a positive discussion that will empower you and your child. And now is an ideal time — October is National Bullying Prevention Month.