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You don't want to think about your child being bullied – but the truth is, bullying is very common. Nearly a third of U.S. students between 12 and 18 say they've been bullied at school, and while middle school is where the problems often emerge, the patterns of bullying can start as early as preschool.
You can't purge your child's world of bullies, but even young kids can learn skills that will help them avoid being pushed around. Want to bully-proof your child? Here’s how.
1. Teach confident posture and speech
Kids can learn a lot about confident speech and body language by watching TV or movies with you. "Make a game of identifying the different tones of voice," says Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. "Ask your child, 'Is that character using a strong voice or a soft voice?'" You can also point out how some characters look down a lot or walk with their shoulders slumped forward and how that makes them look vulnerable.
Like it or not, you also provide an example to your child. If parents don't behave confidently, their children won't either. If someone cuts in front of you in line at the grocery store, use it as a chance to model assertive language: "Excuse me, but I was standing here first."
2. Role-play speaking up for yourself
If a child can say what he feels and can ask for what he wants, he'll be far less likely to be the target of a bully. Borba suggests sitting in the sandbox with your child and modeling how to react in different situations: "Teach him to say, 'No, I don’t want to' and 'It’s my turn now.' Some other useful phrases are 'Cut it out,' 'Stop,' and 'Back off.'"
You can show your child how to express his opinion while respecting the other person. Teach tactful phrases like "That's one way to do it, but here's what I think."
Bullied children can become their own worst enemies because they may start to feel they deserve it. A helpful tool for overcoming bullying before it escalates is self talk. Teach your child confidence-boosting phrases like "I don’t have to do this" and "That's not right."
3. Practice making eye contact
Eye contact is a simple way to convey confidence, and it's never too soon to teach it. It's up to you to model making eye contact. Whenever possible, look your child in the eye when talking to her.
In social settings, you can play a game with your child. Ask her, "What color eyes does that person have?" Or, put a sticker on your forehead; it creates a specific point for your child to focus on (and makes you look silly, which is a plus for your child). A bonus to making eye contact is that it helps kids keep their head up – another sign of confidence.
4. Resist swooping in to save the day
Kids are faced with potential confidence-building scenarios every day. If parents jump in to rescue them every time they seem to struggle, they hinder those experiences. If your child is shy, don't speak for him. Give him a chance to hold his own.
Of course, in some cases you absolutely should step in – if things get physical, if your child is getting stomachaches from stress or not wanting to go to school. But for more minor bumps along the road, give your child time and space to figure things out so his confidence and resilience will build. "Confidence grows from 'I can' moments," says Borba. "What robs a child of self-esteem is not feeling capable."
5. Explain that nothing is personal
People being less than nice. Getting her feelings hurt. These things will happen, but you can explain to your child that staying positive and feeling good about herself, no matter what, is the best response. Tell her that she might feel bad for a bit, but those feelings will fade soon. This will help her understand emotional resilience and equilibrium.
6. Be a rock for your child
If your children feel safe confiding in you, you're doing your job. "Children need to feel that they can trust their parents, that they can talk to them about what is happening in their lives," says Edward F. Dragan, author of The Bully Action Guide: How to Help Your Child and Get Your School to Listen. "If parents don’t accept the hurt their child is feeling, they can’t help their child overcome it."
Lisa Firestone, clinical psychologist and senior editor at PsychAlive, believes that much of a person's ability to brush off a bad day and bounce back from misfortune comes from strong attachments at home. "Kids need to feel they have a secure place where they are accepted 100 percent for who they are," she says.