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What you can do about bullying

This is the third article in our series about bullying. Check out Understanding bullying and Understanding cyber bullying.

Speak up

“The best way to help children not become victims of bullies is by teaching them some bully-proofing skills,” says Dr. Schwartz. He recommends teaching them strategies to appropriately stand up to bullying and teasing such as those found on www.safeyouth.org.

“The very best thing we can do to help victims of bullies is to stand up for them and unite against the bully by not laughing at his antics or bullying alongside him,” shares Vishnevsky. As a victim of bullying herself, she offers firsthand insight into the emotional distress bullying causes. “Victims need to know they are special and that bullying shouldn’t bring them down. They may need a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, but above all, we need to show compassion for the victims and help them deal with the issues that are facing them.” In her own experience, Vishnevsky repeatedly asked for help but her allegations were brushed aside by authority figures. This is a common occurrence when educators and other adults have not been trained to recognize the warning signs of bullying.

What schools are doing

It is important for parents to be aware of the programs their schools have in place to teach tolerance and prevent bullying. Brenda Vallana, instructional specialist for the Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, says that the district uses many different bullying prevention programs.

“The most effective programs are research-based and proven, such as The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program,” she says. The Olweus program includes yearly student surveys and data collection and training for all site staff members to recognize and report bullying incidents on campus. Regular class meetings are held to educate students on the harmful effects of bullying behaviors and help to sustain the focus on bullying prevention.

In addition to teaching these programs to students and staff, Dr. Ken Druck advises schools and communities to make it easy to report threats. “Awareness isn’t enough. Schools and communities need to make it easy for kids to report bullies, weapons, threats and/or potentially violent individuals. Then, they need to employ a variety of intervention approaches that significantly alter their violent behavior.”

Helping children cope

Children respond to trauma in different ways; some exhibit reactions very soon after the event while others may internalize their feelings for many months before exhibiting worrisome behavior. Because they have not developed their own coping methods, young children depend on their parents and teachers to help them through. According to the Americans Take Charge Web site, www.AmericansTakeCharge.com, preschool age children may regress to an earlier behavior such as thumb sucking or bedwetting. Changes in eating and sleeping habits are common, as are disobedience, hyperactivity, speech difficulties and aggressive or withdrawn behavior.


In early childhood, children ages 5 to 11 may have some of the same reactions and may also withdraw from playgroups and friends, compete more for the attention of parents, fear going to school, allow school performance to drop, become aggressive or find it hard to concentrate. Adolescent children ages 12 to 14 are more likely to have vague physical complaints and may abandon chores, school work and other responsibilities. In later adolescence, teens may experience feelings of helplessness and may deny the extent of their emotional reactions to a traumatic event.

During this time, reassurance is key. Parents should encourage children of all ages to express emotions through conversation, drawing or painting and to find a way to help the victims of the tragedy. By maintaining a normal household or classroom routine, adults can help children and teens retain a sense of normalcy in the face of turmoil. Remember that because of the speed and wealth of information available to children and teens from the local media and the Internet, the effects of a school tragedy can impact them in the same way as it impacts the affected community.

Lend an ear

Children and teens have a tendency to internalize their painful experiences. As a result, without an established trust, parents may be unaware that their child is a victim of bullying or even a bully themselves. Communication is key. “Parents should picture communication lines with their kids as lifelines secured to the hearts of their children,” says Dr. Michael Bradley. These lifelines are vital when the storms of childhood hit.

“The key is to practice listening, and not talking,” adds Dr. Bradley. “Kids rarely find adults who take the time to truly listen to them. They define listening as providing a caring ear instead of tons of useless advice. Adult listening and kid sharing should be practiced a lot so that when something big happens, like bullying, the kid’s reflex is to share, not conceal.”
He offers the following listening tips: find a space apart from the business side of parenting; try a late night snuggle and share session; say as little as possible; never discount the child’s feelings; don’t offer advice unless it’s requested; and beyond all else, write the definition of empathy across the child’s face. He explains that empathy is not asking if what someone says makes sense to the listener, but rather how it makes sense to the speaker. “By keeping that phrase in mind, parents are likely to do just fine!” encourages Dr. Bradley.

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