As a kid who changed schools four times before the sixth grade and was regularly on the wrong side of girls’ fashion, I was subject to my share of torment. But the B-word never entered my mind. In fact, I barely mentioned these incidents to my parents. Was I bullied? Perhaps. I was definitely snubbed, teased and ostracized at times. But that was the ’80s, when our worst weapons (scribbled notes? sneaky phone calls?) were a far cry from today’s surround-sound social media. This was before bullying became synonymous with going to school in North America—or with suicide.
Fast-forward a generation and my daughter had to face her first bullying situation in senior kindergarten—yes, SK. A six-month ordeal that broke my heart, challenged my ideas about bullying as an older-kid thing and definitely messed with my concept of kindergarten as ABCs and “Kumbaya.” Talking to friends and other parents, I quickly learned that something—maybe everything—had changed.
Over the years, bullying has crept into the lower grades and become a much more common occurrence. Today, there is anti-bullying legislation for schools in many provinces across Canada to help address the problem and keep kids safe. Experts recommend paying close attention to your child if you even get a whiff of them being targeted (or targeting others) and taking time to learn about the best steps to address and prevent today’s forms of bullying.
1. MYTH: Bullies are just mean, angry kids.
Bullying behaviour can turn up in all sorts of kids and is not about being angry. So, what is bullying exactly? Public Safety Canada calls bullying “acts of intentional harm, repeated over time, in a relationship where an imbalance of power exists.”
According to Barbara Coloroso, a long-time spokesperson and bestselling author on bullying and other parenting topics, bullying is really about contempt, “a powerful feeling of dislike toward someone considered to be worthless, inferior or undeserving of respect.”
2. MYTH: My child is in kindergarten, so I don’t have to worry about this yet.
It’s actually not too early to start the conversation. Prevention and bully-proofing can start any time, says Suzanne Peck, a filmmaker and author of Stand Tall: Lessons That Teach Respect and Prevent Bullying. She recommends talking to your kids about what bullying is and how to respond to it, even before there is an issue.
There are great books for every age that illustrate how to be inclusive and how to stand up for yourself and others, which is “exactly what they need to learn,” says Peck. The Pout-Pout Fish and the Bully-Bully Shark is a good one for kids aged three to six.
Learning school-appropriate, assertive (not aggressive) behaviour is a lifelong pursuit and will be a helpful part of your child’s communication toolbelt well beyond the school years.
3. MYTH: Whatever this issue is, it will blow over.
More than likely, help will be needed from parents to resolve the problem. Squashing bullying issues early is key, and it’s something that parents and kids can do together. Peck recommends taking time to get to the heart of the issue with your child and asking gentle questions about how they felt and if anyone else was around. “Then immediately alert the teacher to keep an eye on the issue,” she says. It’s also a key time to work on their inner strength and confidence. “Build up your kid’s self-respect and help them find things they’re good at,” she says.
Perhaps most vital is that children “learn immediately to tell an adult,” which may sound simple but isn’t. Speaking up can be scary and embarrassing, and not having an advocating adult (teacher, parent or bullying ambassador) on your side can be discouraging. “Keep encouraging them,” she says. If a child’s complaints fall on deaf ears at school, Peck encourages parents to “intervene immediately.”
4. MYTH: If the teacher or school says that everything is fine, it’s probably fine.
The teacher might not know, and the school may not understand. Listen to your child, pay attention and ask questions.
“It’s up to parents to take notice, be vigilant and take action when needed,” advises Peck. She notes that teacher-student ratios can make it nearly impossible for teachers to be aware of everything. She also says that it’s OK to escalate the situation if you feel like it isn’t being addressed adequately. “Be as strong and pushy as possible,” she says. “You have to be the squeaky wheel.”
5. MYTH: I’ll fix it by giving so-and-so’s mum a call or talking to her directly.
It’s hard to know what to do when conflict arises, but Peck cautions that talking to the other parent is often a mistake. “There are many stories where it can make it worse,” she says. One reason is that the root of the bullying behaviour can sometimes start at home (a bigger can of worms that might make things more complicated).
It can also be a disservice to kids when parents try to take over without helping to build their child’s understanding or communication skills, says Linda Cowen, a director of special education at Santa Barbara Charter School in California.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to counter bullying, including a culture of zero tolerance and a team of committed, knowledgeable teachers and specialists to address situations as they arise. Cowen leads her school’s culture of conflict resolution and stresses the importance of this process, from untangling its social dynamics to finding the right form of accountability for the bully. “You need conflict resolution,” she says. “We spend hours on that.”
6. MYTH: There’s always going to be a bully—everyone just has to deal with it.
Bullying issues need to be addressed head-on. They require committed adults to help move the issues to a resolution, not tiptoe around them or minimize them.
At Cowen’s school, bullying issues are a known problem with known consequences, and the bullying-education program starts right from kindergarten. “When incidents occur, students spend time following the steps practised to say sorry and resolve differences,” she says, adding how important it is that students feel safe at school.
To restore peace, there may be a meeting with parents, apologizing in writing, time out of class for the rest of the day or extra supervision outside to prevent further incidents. At the more extreme end, there may be counselling sessions and behaviour contracts. Accountability measures are balanced with opportunities to make things better. “We stress that each day is a new day,” she says, adding that she sees bullying behaviours dissipate with the right approach.
7. MYTH: If my child wasn’t weak/different/new/small, they wouldn’t have been a target.
“There is only one uniting factor: someone targeted them,” says Coloroso. “All it takes is someone with the desire to pick on someone else and to do it. Bullying can be a significant one-time event; it doesn’t have to be continuous.” Brand new at a school? Target. Easy to tease about something? Target.
But according to Coloroso and other experts, getting to the root of “why” your child is getting bullied isn’t as productive as working to stop the bully, holding the bully accountable, alleviating the targeted child’s emotional distress and giving them the right tools to stand up to future bullying.
No matter what the reason for the bullying, Coloroso recommends listening and reassuring your child that it’s not their fault and that there are things that will be done to stop it.
Cowen and Coloroso both emphasize the importance of having “one good friend” who will be there through thick and thin. If that’s not an option in school, then facilitating time with a close friend outside of school can help, too.
If the situation worsens, Coloroso recommends taking further action, like reporting it to the appropriate school personnel and setting up a meeting for you, them and your child. Prepare a factual point-by-point description of exactly what’s been happening and how it has had an impact on your child.
8. MYTH: This bullying thing keeps happening—there’s not much more we can do.
The bullying cycle is a vicious one, and repeated attacks can have a serious impact on your child, says Coloroso. This heartbreaking scenario is the greatest argument for acting preventively. If your child is targeted and then a bullying situation goes unchecked, “You’ll see a kid who doesn’t look like the kid you originally knew,” she says.
Look for the signs and act. “If your child is going to school fearful, acting out and/or withdrawing, it’s time to take action,” says Coloroso. Otherwise, she warns, the results can be devastating.
“Schools have the job of keeping your child safe,” says Coloroso. “If that’s not happening, that’s a real problem.” For parents who are considering changing schools, Coloroso suggests doing so only if “the school is unresponsive and refuses to keep your child safe and if the child continues to be hurt without any relief in sight at the school.” However, she adds that changing schools won’t fix everything. If your child has become vulnerable because they were a target for too long, there might be more support needed than just a new school.
9. MYTH: My kid doesn’t get bullied, so I'll only have to start doing something about it if they become a target.
Navigating peer-group dynamics can be hard and intimidating at any age. But even something as simple as saying “Hey, that’s mean” or “Leave her alone” when the situation warrants it might really help someone out, Coloroso says. The role of the bystander can be pivotal in how bullying dynamics plays out. The child who won’t stand by, join in or ignore when someone else is getting bullied can make a big difference.
“A potent force is kids themselves showing bullies that they will not be looked up to and that cruel behaviour will not be tolerated,” says Coloroso, since most bullying goes on under the radar of adults. She highlights the fact that standing up for peers and speaking out against injustices can help shift the social dynamics, pushing more toward the high road of communication, compassion and more-mature conflict resolution.
Though bullying is a big, scary word with big, scary consequences, in the context of young children, prevention and communication is really about helping our kids create the culture they’ll live in and pass on.