Bullyproofing Your Children

December 15th, 2011 by Ethan Watters

Psychologist Joel Haber on understanding how to mitigate bully behavior.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It’s a tough moment for a parent: Your child comes home from school in tears because another child has put them down or excluded them from a social group. It’s easy to get upset – to jump on the phone to call the school or other parents to defend your child. First, take a deep breath, recommends psychologist Joel Haber, the author of Bullyproof Your Child For Life. In his private practice, Haber has worked with thousands of children who have become the targets of bullies, and has taught them techniques to protect themselves. He also has worked with the bullies themselves, to help them recognize and change their behavior. In the process, Haber has learned that parents’ reactions are critical in mitigating bullying behavior, and he’s seen the subtle ways in which parents can inadvertently model bullying for their children.

How do you define bullying?

Bullying is when one or more kids intentionally hurt others to increase their power and status. There are three main types: physical, verbal and relational. Relational bullying is what kids do to hurt each other’s relationships. It’s often the most painful kind of bullying, because kids are so involved in defining themselves among their peers. Social exclusion, for instance, is very hard to take because every kid wants to be part of a group.

Is it always clear to the adults when kids are getting bullied?

Truthfully, it’s hard to know if behavior that certain kids do is a serious problem or just a passing event. Kids get into all kinds of aggressive physical behaviors and teasing, and it may be fine between kids who are fine with it. But it crosses the line when it is unwanted behavior and doesn’t stop. So the decision of when to step in is always case-by-case. And that’s where it gets confusing: If a kid doesn’t necessarily say that it’s a problem, how do you know?

What should a parent do then?

Help normalize the experience for the child. You can say, “Sometimes people act in ways that hurt each other, and sometimes we don’t let on that it hurts because we’re embarrassed or uncomfortable. If that’s happening, you can let me know, so we can figure out if there’s another way to handle it.” Some kids want to share, but they don’t know it’s safe.

How does a kid fight back?

The idea of fighting back is one of the myths I often have to address. There are several problems with that idea. One is that if a kid really wants to bully you and you try to fight back, he can escalate it and make it worse. Number two is, most schools now say that if you’re physically involved in a fight, no matter who instigated it, you will be punished as well. That said, there are times when, if you’re in a situation where no is one around and you’re getting the heck beat out of you, if you want to try to defend yourself, you need to do that.

In your book you note that bullies are usually trying to provoke an exaggerated reaction from their targets; if they get a response, they’re likely to go back for more. That would suggest that finding ways to modulate a child’s reaction might be helpful.

Yes, I’ve seen that dynamic thousands of times. The key is to teach the target skills to help them control their reaction and gain control over the situation. Bullying occurs more frequently with kids who have emotionally reactive responses to bullying behavior. The emotionality of their reaction, namely anger, acting out or high drama offers the opportunity for the bully to gain more power because the focus is then on the target and not on the bully. But I have to add a caveat: We really must not blame the target for their reaction; they’re not the cause of this. We don’t want to blame the target for reacting – we want to empower him or her to try something that will reduce the reaction and potentially lessen the “fun” for the youth who bullies. If it is successful, they learn resilience skills.

To do this, parents have to watch their own reactions. Some parents overreact and lose emotional control when they learn that their kid is being bullied. When that happens, the child is less likely to talk to them again about the situation. Worse yet, the parent is demonstrating that the bullying is as dramatic as the kid has feared. Controlling our own reactions as parents is the first step to teaching our kids how to control their own emotional responses. It’s great role modeling.

How do kids become bullies?

Sometimes it’s clear that they pick it up from their parents. Bullying is about exclusion, and parents often are unaware that they model this behavior when they gossip about other adults. We may openly talk about excluding people we know, in front of our kids. When we do this, we’re demonstrating that treating others in duplicitous ways is acceptable; we’re giving them approval for behavior that they’re going to test out. Kids follow our behavior more than listen to our words.

What should you do if you discover that your child is trying out bullying behavior on others?

The response is similar to when your kid is the target. You don’t want to be waiting with aggression and anger and blast your kid; that won’t work. You do want to try to approach it in an open-ended and calm way. The key question to ask yourself is: Why is my kid trying out this bullying behavior? Is he looking for attention? Is she having sibling issues at home, where she’s being picked on and so she’s testing out bullying in school? Does he feel threatened himself? Is he looking to move up the social ladder? Is she joining someone else and doing their dirty work? You have to get to the bottom, to find out what the motivation is.

A small segment of kids do the bullying; another small segment is prone to being the target. What about the majority of kids in the middle – the observers?

One of the most successful paths to solving bullying is in influencing the behavior of the observers. To ask these kids to stand up in front of a bully is to put them in a high-risk situation. Instead, the thing to encourage is what we call low-risk ally solutions: Do something that’s supportive of the kid who’s been targeted. Call him up. Ask him to sit with you at lunch the next day. Walk with him to class. Be an ally, an “upstander,” as we call it. Help that kid feel like he or she has status. That’s what a kid needs.

Is bullying getting worse in our society?

That’s a hard question. We’re seeing some decline in bullying, but as we’ve become more aware of the problem, it has become clear that lots of kids are involved in it, much more than we ever thought. The game-changer is cyberbullying. It has increased the number of kids involved in bullying, and the anonymity of it means that kids do it without seeing a reaction, so there are fewer social cues to regulate it. That’s more dangerous, and scarier. The viral nature of technology has allowed bullying to stay out there forever – through videos, texting, pictures that can be harmful. Kids have no safe place anymore. They can’t go home and get away from it. 

Ethan Watters is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, and other magazines, and is the author most recently of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche