Sending our children off to school, most of us hope and expect that they will spend their days learning in a safe environment. So when we hear that our child has been bullied – or has engaged in bullying – we are no doubt devastated. And oftentimes, we are left wondering if there is anything we could have done to prevent this type of incident.
Parents have a key role to play in making sure children are safe in classrooms, hallways and schoolyards.
It all starts with understanding what constitutes bullying, notes Dr. Joanne Cummings, a psychologist and the Knowlegde Mobilization Director for Prevnet, a network of Canadian organizations and researchers working to combat bullying. Although conflict between kids is normal, bullying occurs when there is repeated aggression coupled with an imbalance of power between the parties. That might mean that one child is bigger, has better verbal skills or is more popular socially. And this is why saying to a child, “just stand up to the bully” generally doesn't work because the victim feels powerless. Instead, parents need to work on both short- and long-term solutions to help a child develop social and conflict resolution skills. Cummings has the following suggestions:
Discuss the “Golden Rule” of treating others as you would like to be treated — and vice versa. Children need to hear repeatedly, from a young age, that hurtful words and actions aren’t acceptable. By the time children start school, they should have a solid sense of what is and isn't OK to do to someone or have someone do to them.
Talk about the difference between “tattling” and “speaking out.” A child who tattles is trying to get someone into trouble, while a child who speaks out is trying to get someone out of trouble. Young people need to know that speaking out when they experience or witness bullying is essential — and that adults will listen and help them. If you child reports bullying, thank them for talking about it and promise to help them. Don't dimiss bullying as “just what kids do.”
Talk with school administrators and teachers about implementing conflict resolution and social-skills building programs to reduce the number of bullying incidents. “You need to find out what your child's school is doing to foster a positive social climate,” Cummings says. Encourage them to use “evidence-based” programs that have been proven to work. The Public Health Agency of Canada has a “Best Practices” site, http://cbpp-pcpe.phac-aspc.gc.ca, where people can find information about reputable violence-prevention and conflict-resolution programs.
Know, understand and talk about what your children are doing online. Cyberbullying, which includes circulating embarrassing photos via texting or posting nasty comments on social media sites like Facebook, is a growing problem. Cummings says the digital world is, “like the Wild West. It's an unsupervised social space.” Because too few parents and teachers feel comfortable monitoring these digital worlds, young people can engage in nasty behaviour anonymously and with few consequences. Young people need to be taught, clearly and explicitly, what is and is not acceptable digital behaviour. And to do that effectively, parents need to know how to use the technology. So get on social media sites, try out texting and keep the conversation flowing, especially with teens.
As anyone who has ever been bullied knows, the fear and shame surrounding this issue can be devastating and last a lifetime. While parents cannot prevent all bullying, they can work to ensure their children have the necessary tools to discuss this form of aggression and get help when they need it.
Prevnet is a group of Canadian researchers and organizations who study and work on bullying prevention. Their website, prevnet.ca, has age-specific information and fact sheets for parents, including ones on cyberbullying. There are also sections for children and educators.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has a list of reputable violence prevention programs for schools on its “Best Practices” site, cbpp-pcpe.phac-aspc.gc.ca.
As part of its crackdown on bullying, the Quebec government has sponsored a website called I Right the Wrong, http://irightthewrong.com, with articles, videos and information for young people, parents and educators. The site also offers advice about preventing cyberbullying.
McGill professor Dr. Shaheen Shariff has developed a website called Define The Line, definetheline.ca, that offers information and resources on cyberbullying to young people, parents and teachers.
Also, check our online Resource Directory for a list of anti-bullying resources under “Family Services.” There is also a list of local organizations that offer anti-bullying programs under “Courses & Programs.”