Monday, June 25, 2012

Bullyproof your child from young

The Sunday Times, 24 June 2012

New York - 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 classroom programmes such as Bully-Proofing Your School.

But can you really make a child invulnerable to getting picked on? Even so, 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 programmes are done right, children 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 is also about creating a culture of kindness, beginning in preschool, and encouraging kids to develop strong friendships that can prevent the social isolation sometimes caused by extreme bullying.

Bullies 'sniff out kids who lack connections or who are isolated because of depression, disabilities or differences in size and shape', says Mr Malcolm Smith, a family education and policy specialist at the University of New Hampshire, who has been researching peer victimisation for more than 30 years.

'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.'

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 as a parent or a therapist 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.'

One way parents can help is to normalise conversations about school social life so that kids are comfortable talking about it.

Do not just ask: 'How was school today?' Ask instead: '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 picked on or excluded?' advises Dr Haber.

Teaching a kid to appear confident physically can sometimes be easier than teaching verbal skills, says Mr Jim Bisenius, a therapist who has taught his Bully- Proofing Youth programme in more than 400 schools in Ohio and elsewhere.

'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.'

Dr Haber says parents and schools can start in preschool years by discouraging hitting, pushing and teasing: 'Ask, how would you feel if someone did that to you?'

Children can even be taught that being kind is fun. 'Addict your child to kindness,' says Mr Smith. 'There are releases in the brain that feed endorphins that are very positive when you act with kindness. Encourage your kids to go over to a kid who's alone and bring them in.'

And beware the example you set when you treat a waitress or clerk rudely. 'If you're the kind of person who is constantly criticising, you're unconsciously role- modelling behaviours that kids will test out,' says Dr Haber.

Associated Press

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