The January suicide of fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince rocked me to the core when I heard about it. An investigation into her death has led prosecutors to allege that “unrelenting” physical, verbal, and online threats over the course of three months led to her suicide. As of last week, nine Massachusetts teens, including three sixteen-year-old girls, are being charged with crimes that range from assault to human rights violations to statutory rape. Several will be tried as adults. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the fact that Phoebe is just one of many bullying-related suicides. A rash of recent “bullycides” (the fact that a term like this now exists speaks volumes) has inspired forty-one states to enact anti-bullying laws in an attempt to send a strong message. This is an important step. However, ultimately, the message that bullying is unacceptable behavior will be most effective if it comes consistently from us as parents. As the Phoebe Prince case so profoundly illustrates, none of us want our child to be on either end of bullying because on both sides, lives are forever and detrimentally changed. It is a must that we be part of the solution.
- Be aware that prevention is always best. Children of any age are much less likely to become targets of bullying or bullies themselves if they have high self-esteem. Model self-value, praise your child often, acknowledge their strengths and accomplishments, and create opportunities to experience things they do well to build their confidence.
- Be proactive in your child’s school. Not all of us have time to serve on the PTA, but a great proactive step can come in the form of a letter or email to the head of the PTA that is also copied to a school administrator. It should clearly express the need for the development of a bullying prevention program in your child’s school. Bullypolice.org can also be a great resource for you. This watchdog organization advocates for bullied children and reports on every state’s anti-bullying laws. Referencing your state’s laws on bullying (if they exist) in your letter will likely get an administrator’s attention quickly. If you find out that laws don’t currently exist, an additional letter to your state representative is in order.
- Keep your eyes and ears open. Every time you have the opportunity to observe your child interacting with other children, do so. This will help you to identify who their peers are and their level of comfort, confidence, and authenticity when dealing with them. It may also provide the opportunity to spot bullies in the mix.
- Never forget that communication is key. Establishing open lines of communication with your child is an essential component of effective parenting. That is especially true when it comes to the prevention, early detection, and working as a team to bring the bullying to an end. A child is usually reluctant to talk to adults about bullying because she fears it will exacerbate the situation. Acknowledge your child’s concern, reassure her of your commitment to handling the situation in a way that won’t make it worse and commit to taking steps as a team.
- Seek the right help. If your child is being bullied, contact the counselor at your child’s school or a teacher with whom you and ideally your child have a good rapport. Reaching out to an adult in the school who really knows and cares about your child as an individual will often yield action that is more effective. Simply contacting the school in an emotional state and talking to the first person you get will be much less effective at best and may, indeed, make the situation worse for your child in the short term.
- Educate yourself and your child on cyber bullying. Online bullying is most common among pre-adolescents and teens and involves attacks in the form of distribution of humiliating photos, dissemination of false or private information and targeting individuals in cruel online polls. Because this is a time when peer influence and judgment is paramount, cyber bullying can impact a victim’s emotional health well into their adult life. Before you permit your child to have a cell phone or open a Facebook or similar account, explain real life consequences of being cyber bullied or participating—actively or as a bystander—in cyber bullying. Then, create a set of guidelines in writing. These should consist of your clear expectations such as treating others as you wish to be treated and requiring that they let you know immediately if they become a target of cyber bullying so you can address the situation quickly and effectively as a team.
- Never advocate fighting fire with fire. Under no circumstances should you encourage your child to deal with bullying by bullying back. This will only perpetuate the cycle and really wipes out an opportunity to gain effective tools for dealing with bullying behavior, which may come in various forms throughout your child’s life. After all, most of us have experienced a co-worker, employer, professor, or even family member who exhibited some form of bullying behavior that we had to find constructive ways of dealing with.
- Be aware of signs that your child may be a bully. If you are going to be dedicated as a parent to ending bullying, it will be necessary for to you to be just as diligent if your child is the bully. Warning signs include a tendency to deliberately exclude, humiliate, physically harm, or spread rumors about other children. Even the earliest signs of this behavior should be addressed by clearly communicating that this behavior is not acceptable. Additionally, it is extremely important that efforts be made to get to the root of the bullying through conversation with your child and the assistance of a child psychologist if necessary.
- Seize the teachable moment. If a silver lining can be found here, it is in the opportunity to educate your child about human behavior. Help your child understand that people of all ages who treat other people poorly usually don’t like themselves very much or are unhappy with some core aspect of their lives. This perspective may help them to realize that the bullying is much more about the bully and not about something that is wrong with them. This can help prevent the tendency to blame themselves, which can in turn, cause further serious blows to their self-esteem.