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Protecting Our Children from Bullying

By Beverley Paine

In a discussion about bullying among children was recently asked: "What do you do when communication and inclusion fail?"

Sometimes the problems lies with the fact that parents fail to recognise that their children's behaviour is actually a form of coercion, intimidation or bullying. We're all guilty of this at some time especially as we're surrounded by acceptance of this type of behaviour. It permeates the media: in movies, televisions shows as well as the stories we read. Only when we or our children are victims of this type of behaviour do we suddenly become sensitized. And more often than not our reaction is to protect ourselves by acting in the same vein.

It can be very frustrating to approach parents to solve problems only to find the parent can see no fault in their child's behaviour. At times like this I would make sure that when in the company of the offending child or children I would closely and continuously observe the activity or play and stand up for my child by directly intervening. That meant getting down on the children's level and making eye contact and pointing out why I considered the children's behaviour was inappropriate. I'd have these chats as often as was necessary. Sometimes the parents of the bullies would start to engage in productive communication about the problem. Sometimes they'd get narked enough to leave the group, which was never a satisfactory outcome as it meant the problem could not be properly resolved.

I'd do this because it would show not only my child, but all the other children, that parents protect their children because they love them and they want their children to enjoy playing with their friends and that this is important. Important enough to risk embarrassing my children, myself and the other people in the group.

My experience of this type of intervention is though everyone hates it while it is happening, it really works. Children need to know that there are social boundaries. They learn this from adults. It is okay for parents to intervene, provided they don't get into blaming behaviour and instead simply act to stop the aggression. Being there, saying "Please stop that" is generally enough for younger children. It helps to talk about why the behaviour is inappropriate and listen to both sides patiently. If the bully stomps off and whines to mum, that's okay too - at least the other kids have seen one child championed and protected. They'll feel safer and perhaps less inclined to get involved in inappropriate behaviour in the future. If mum comes barreling along and wants to pick a fight, don't go there, simply say that it's your job to make sure your child isn't hurt while he or she is playing. Don't get into "you should" statements - keep it focused on your role as parent and your responsibility to your child. Remember that the other children are listening and learning... If the group takes the side of the parent/s of the bullies, and you are feeling outnumbered and victimized, you probably need to find another group.

I would use this tactic - being there, intervening and explaining that the behaviour is inappropriate - with my own children when they bullied their siblings. I would focus on accountability, helping them understand that they were accountable for their behaviour. I'd also help them develop empathy and compassion by encouraging them to remember what is was like when they were the butt of that kind of behaviour. Regularly talking about how to treat others - not in the same way we are treated but how we want to be treated - is important too. We all want to be treated with respect, to be listened to properly, to be heard and to be accepted for who we are. Being upset, impatient, angry or simply having a bad day aren't excuses for mistreating others.

Our children have to learn how to resolve conflicts and manage emotions. That process naturally takes all of childhood - we need to be patient with children and show them better ways of behaviour, not expect them to be expert peacemakers at an early age! Over time they will to learn the skills of how to cooperate, compromise, deal with sacrifice, how to share and cope with and handle injustice and manage their impulses. But to do so they need plenty of opportunities to practice these skills in safe, protective environments. They also need to be reflective, to ask "is this really the situation, does my best friend really hate me, or is she simply tired, upset, disappointed and taking it out on my?" We can help by actively being there, observing our children and modelling these skills.

My children knew that when we were out and about socialising I'd be nearby watching the children as they played. If I thought the game was getting a bit rough or could quickly get out of hand I would often call out and ask them an unrelated question, letting all the children know that an adult was watching. If I saw something I thought was inappropriate or unsafe, I'd walk over and ask the children not to do it. If the other children said they were allowed to, I'd say my children were not, and I'd explain why.

It's hard for play to get out of hand if enough parents who care are watching. Some people would say it is being over-protective, however I take the view that children should learn social skills primarily from the modelling of appropriate social skills and behaviour by adults. If adults aren't present then children naturally socialise each other, but without guidance - which means they revert back to instinctive 'survival of the fittest' behaviour. As children go through their developmental stages, they should be finding ways of working problems out and getting along with other people. This includes learning how to read social situations, make friends, and understand their social environment. Until our children demonstrate the ability to manage social situations on their own it's our job to help and protect them.

Other articles in this series on Bullying and Home Education by Beverley Paine

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