The heartwrenching stories and startling statistics coming out about bullying are commanding a justified level of concern in parents. With new data revealing that more kids are affected by bullying and cyber-bullying than we ever imagined and that both bullies and victims are at higher risk for suicide, our eyes are opening to the fact that we're faced with a potentially life-threatening situation. So what can we do to protect our children against the painful effects of bullying?
The primary step in helping our children persevere when being bullied or facing other sources of trauma is equipping them with a solid foundation of emotional resilience by ensuring that they feel accepted at home. It is important that we accept our kids for whoever they are, no matter how different they are from us or from how we expected them to be. When kids feel consistently accepted for who they are, they are more able to cope with stress and adversity.
According to NPR, a study conducted Dr. Caitlin Ryan, Director of the Family Acceptance Project, has "found that the gay, lesbian and bisexual young adults and teens at the highest risk of attempting suicide and having some other health problems are ones who reported a high level of rejection by their families as a result of their sexual orientation." Dr. Ryan further found that if kids are bullied, being accepted by their families has a buffering effect, making them less susceptible to negative outcomes.
As parents, we want our kids to feel confident within themselves, so that even if they experience bullying, they will be able to recover. As PTSD expert Dr. Donald Meichenbaum has said, "Resilience reflects the ability to 'bounce back' ... [and] move from being a victim to being a 'survivor', and even to becoming a 'thriver'." If we want our children to have the ability to adapt to, handle, and overcome the tough situations they encounter in life, the effort to provide them with these skills must begin at home. Here are some of the dos and don'ts of building resilience in our children.
- Inspire Positive Emotions: It's essential that we provide our kids with opportunities to have positive emotions. This sounds simple, but very often we get so distracted by the practicalities of parenting (making sure our kids change their clothes, brush their teeth, and do their homework) that we fail to provide them with enough opportunities to be joyful. We should always encourage our children to find pleasure and humor in life.
- Find an Area of Interest: Helping our kids find an area that interests them and that they can excel in is a gift that can shape their lives. Get them involved in activities that help them feel good about themselves. Provide them with a variety of opportunities to find what specifically appeals to them. In doing this, we should be flexible in our expectations of children. If they prefer sketching cartoons when we'd prefer they were playing the cello, it is important to support them in their excitement. It is also important not to confuse false praise with encouragement. Kids can tell the difference and often feel confused when our compliments don't match their accomplishments.
- Teach Mindfulness: Children must be taught how to calm themselves down when falling apart or feeling aggressive. We can read young children books like The Peaceful Piggy, which introduces them to the benefits of mindfulness and how it can help them develop the ability to remain calm, even in the face of bullying. For advice on teaching mindfulness to children, parents can read The Whole-Brain Child, which offers techniques for developing "mindsight," the ability to see what is going on in our minds and the minds of others. This helps our children be able to recognize their own reactions and better understand others, so they can more effectively cope with bullies.
- Promote Problem Solving Skills: To equip our kids with invaluable problem solving skills, we must show them how to be flexible in their responses. If a child faces a challenging situation, it's important to sit down with them and encourage them to think about the many possible courses of action available and which will yield the most benefit. If, for example, they endure teasing from a friend, what can they do? Is revenge really the best option? Does ignoring it really solve the problem? Should they talk directly to the friend about how the teasing makes them feel? Should an adult be present in the conversation?
- Orient Them Toward the Future: Part of ensuring that our kids stay hopeful involves orientating them toward the future. Helping them plan for their future doesn't necessarily mean knowing what college they want to get into or how many children they plan to have. It also doesn't mean creating a fantasy of a future that could never exist. It is more a matter of helping them focus on their real, everyday goals, like visiting a certain city or learning to drive a car. It can mean making them aware of a heroic person who inspires them or introducing them to slightly novel situations that open them up to new ideas and opportunities. Teaching our kids that the future holds brightness and possibility is a lesson that can lift them through low times.
- Lead by Example: In each of the previous suggestions, it is vital to lead by example. Telling our kids what to do and how to behave will rarely influence them as much as showing them how to handle difficult situations. Exposing them to the constructive approaches we take in finding solutions to problems in our lives encourages them to handle matters in a similar way. If we come home complaining about our responsibilities or feeling victimized by our boss, we encourage kids to take the same attitude toward their own challenges.
- Support Maladaptive Thinking: Negative thoughts contribute to a child's insecurities and low self-esteem. Allowing our children to focus or dwell on a perceived weakness or negative trait is not constructive. Rather, it is productive for us to encourage them to challenge their hostile self-criticisms and self-attacks. This form of maladaptive thinking, which is referred to as the "critical inner voice," leads a child to feel mentally defeated and victimized by circumstances. Allowing our kids to ruminate or act on these critical inner voices can have harmful effects. Instead, encourage them to identify these negative thoughts and challenge them in their actions. Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, a book I co-authored with Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett, provides exercises for recognizing and overcoming this internal bully.
- Be Critical, Coddling, or Ignore Issues: We should always support our kids in new challenges. We can help by putting them in somewhat novel situations in which they're slightly uncomfortable, but we're there to back them up. We shouldn't over-push them, leading them to feel abandoned or afraid, nor should we overprotect them by speaking for them or stepping in too often, which teaches them to feel dependent or helpless. Most importantly, we should never pretend not to notice that there's a problem. Ignoring the fact that our children are struggling will not encourage them to toughen up and move on. It will only leave them feeling more alone than ever.
- Dwell on the Negative: When a child goes through a negative experience, it is important to give them the platform to talk about it. Encourage the child to express what happened and how it made him or her feel. We can help our children resolve any traumas they experience by reframing the experiences so that they can learn from them. This is not to say we should attempt to alter reality or ignore the fact that they were hurt. However, the more people mull over painful events or tell themselves stories about being victims, the worse off they are.
- Avoid Dealing with Painful Events: When a traumatic event occurs, we shouldn't help our kids engage in avoidant behavior by steering clear of anything that reminds them of the occurrence. Never avoid talking about painful events. One of the challenges in stopping bullying is that many children fail to disclose incidents of abuse. When we encourage our kids to talk about bad things that happen to them, we help them make sense out of these experiences. Memories that are not made sense of can have negative effects on children. They may start to show behavior problems, increased fears, stress, or anger. Creating a coherent narrative helps make meaning out of experiences and form a sense of personal agency and closure.
As parents, we may not be able to protect our children from the bullies that exist in the world, but we can help our kids build the resilience required to not allow bullying to have the devastating impact it is capable of having on a child's life. And this will provide them with an essential coping tool that they can take with them into adulthood.
Hear more from Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Donald Meichenbaum on building resilience in the free upcoming Webinar, "Road Map to Resilience : Ways to Bolster Resilience and Well-being."
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on parenting at PsychAlive: Alive to Parenting.