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Tiny Tyrants: Teaching Kids How to Stand Up to Bullies

Published on: January 31, 2012

Teaching kids how to stand up to bulliesYour preschooler is playing with another child. Suddenly, the other kid snatches your child’s toy and pushes him to the ground.

How would your child react? Experts report that the way kids react to bullying matters — and may set the tone for future bullying episodes.

University of Illinois professor Karen Rudolph, Ph.D., reports that second- and third-grade children typically adopt one of three approaches when faced with bullies: Some value building quality relationships and getting along with others; some worry about gaining status; and others try to avoid negative judgment and embarrassment.

Rudolph says the children who want to build relationships with others are most likely to react to bullying in thoughtful and positive ways. These kids ask their teachers for help, seek emotional support, use problem-solving skills and look for ways to decrease the tension with the bully. These children also report having a better perception of themselves.

Bullying victims concerned with popularity are more likely to retaliate or react impulsively, which could escalate the problem, she says. On the other hand, kids worried about being judged tend to ignore the situation altogether, which can be effective, but might cause bullies to “up the ante.”

Developing social skills

Preschool is a good time to help children develop effective ways to cope with bullies, says Rudolph. “Think about helping kids develop relationships, learn how to get along with other kids and value the importance of good friends, rather than worrying about being popular or being judged.”

Teachers can do this, too. Kirkland preschool teacher Molly Marsh helps her students establish constructive social skills. When a child recently grabbed Legos from another, for example, “I had the victim hold out his hand and say, ‘Excuse me, that was mine,’” she says.

“I teach the more aggressive kids about personal space and talk about having a ‘space bubble,’” says Marsh. “With the victim, I teach them about strong communication and how to use strong words and a strong voice. If they’re not getting the space they need, I have them say, ‘Excuse me, I need space.’ It’s important to make sure children know it’s OK to stand up for themselves.”

According to Leah Koenig, a Bellevue certified parent coach and family therapist, bullying among preschoolers shows up in various forms: physical aggression; social isolation, such as not letting others play; and verbal aggression, such as name calling and teasing.

“Preschoolers are in the process of developing their sense of self,” Koenig says. “They haven’t developed empathy yet and are just starting to understand cause and effect. Think of them as little scientists. They’re trying to figure out how to get their needs met. Sometimes they find that by grabbing a toy and being aggressive, they get their needs met. They’re just trying different things on.”

Koenig encourages parents to help their preschoolers build confidence and develop a positive self-concept by empathizing with their problems and allowing them to do things on their own.

“Don’t do for a child what they can do for themselves — that’s the golden rule,” she says. And communicate with them in positive ways. “If they’re getting feedback that they’re not good enough, that they’re a ‘crybaby,’ for example, these words build their belief system of themselves and stay with them. If a child has a strong self-concept, then those words will bounce right off and not be absorbed into their belief system.”

Empowering young kids

Redmond mom “Kendra” (she asked that her real name not be used) has a daughter who was bullied at preschool. “We started noticing a change in her behavior before we knew she was being bullied,” she says. “When we looked into what was going on, we realized she was mimicking the bully. The child in her class was very rough and physical, and was scaring her with the aggression. Eventually, she stopped wanting to go to school.”

Kendra and her husband spoke to the school and worked out a plan to have the teachers help manage the bully’s behavior by shadowing the bully, especially in the morning when their daughter arrived and the aggression was at its worst. The parents also looked for ways to empower their daugh­ter. “We taught her how to stand up for herself by saying, ‘No thank you, I don’t like that,’” Kendra says.

Soon, their daughter became more comfortable at school. While the bully still likes to play rough, Kendra says their daughter learned to use strong words and to get help when she needs it.

Gail Joseph, an educational psychology professor at the University of Washington, recommends a similar approach. She tells kids that when they’re bullied, they should follow these steps: Use strong words, such as “Please stop”; ignore the behavior; and, if bullying continues, get someone’s help.

“In early childhood years, we are seeing providers report an increase in all kinds of challenging behavior with aggression being the most concerning,” says Joseph. “When it starts early and if kids don’t stand up for themselves and develop good skills, it becomes likely they will continue to be bullied.”

Jennifer Armstrong is a Kirkland-based freelance writer and mother of two.

5 Tips for helping your child stand up to bullies

While Joseph cautions that victims should never be blamed for being bullied, she shares several strategies parents can use to help prepare their kids to stand up for themselves:

1. Play the “What would you do if . . . ?” game, bringing up different situations, asking what they would do and talking about it. For example, what would they do if someone took their toy?

2. Read children’s books that describe someone being bullied and talk about it. Guess how people are feeling, ask “What would you do?” and try role playing.

3. Teach kids to use strong, confident words, such as “Please stop.”

4. Practice ignoring. To teach kids to ignore, parents can have kids make a paper “teasing shield” and have kids practice holding it up to let teases bounce off. Then, talk about how they can imagine the shield if they don’t have a real shield with them.

5. Help kids know when to try to handle a situation themselves and when to get help by talking about “mouse” problems (small ones) and “elephant” problems (more serious ones). When it’s a mouse problem, it’s OK to use strong words and try ignoring the other child before getting help, but big problems need a big person to get involved.

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