Retailers are vigorously gearing up for back-to-school shopping! Media advertising is filled with the hottest school supplies, the latest fashion trends, the must-have shoes, and the best online offers.
What essentials do kids need that cannot be purchased at the shopping mall, at the big box stores or online? The answer is bullying prevention skills. Coping skills are crucial in handling mean-spirited teasing, exclusion and bullying. Why?
Over more than two decades as an elementary school social worker in north suburban Chicago, I repeatedly witnessed the pain and stress suffered by children as a result of teasing, ridicule, put-downs, exclusion, taunting and bullying. Being a target or victim of teasing and bullying can result in chronic stress, anxiety, aggressive behaviors, depression, low self-esteem, academic decline, social withdrawal and physical illness.
Widespread access to cell phones and the Internet has made it possible for school-yard bullying to "go viral" and global, which multiplies the resulting hurt and humiliation. Tragic stories of bullying, harassment and cyberbullying of middle and high school students ending in violence and suicide are frequent, frightening and alarming news headlines.
Some kids who are teased, even just a few times, don't want to go to school. Yet many people continue to view teasing and bullying as unavoidable parts of childhood, a “rite of passage” and something everyone encounters and should deal with.
Although we can’t eliminate peer abuse altogether or prevent it entirely, we are able to equip kids with the essential tools to handle teasing successfully and confidently. When children are able to respond to teasing with effective tools and words, they are less likely to become victims of bullies!
The following are brief descriptions of the “Easing the Teasing” strategies.
Encourage children to think about what they can say to themselves when they are in a teasing situation. It is essential that they not react with anger or tears, because emotional reactions are likely to result in more teasing. “I am not going to cry or get angry. I won’t do what the teaser or bully wants me to do.” A child should ask himself, "Is the tease true?" Often it is not. “Just because someone said that to me does not mean it’s true.”
Another important self-talk question is, "Whose opinion is more important: the teaser's or mine?" “My opinion is more important than the teaser or bully’s opinion.” It is also helpful for the teased child to think about his or her positive qualities to counteract negative self-talk that often results from the cruel and hurtful words.
Because displays of anger or tears often invite more teasing, it is often effective for children to ignore the teaser. We need to teach kids what ignoring looks like. Ignoring is not looking at or responding to the teaser. Children should try to pretend that the teaser is invisible and act as if nothing has happened. If possible, they should walk away and join others.
Parents can role play "ignoring" with their children and praise them for their excellent "acting." It should be noted that ignoring may not work in prolonged teasing situations and other strategies may be necessary.
The I Message
The "I Message" is an assertive way for children to effectively express their feelings. The child expresses how he feels, what has caused him to feel that way, and what he would like others to do differently. For example, a child could say, "I feel upset when you say mean things about how I look, could you please stop.” This strategy generally works better when expressed in a structured or supervised situation, such as a classroom or during a family discussion where there is an adult to facilitate this communication.
When used in situations, such as recess or on the school bus, it may lead to more teasing. After all, upsetting his or her target is the goal of the mean-spirited teaser or bully. Nevertheless, it is an easy skill to teach children to help them deal with many situations. The child should learn to make eye contact and speak firmly, but politely. The I Message is quite effective when a comment that is meant to be fun and friendly is taken as cruel and hurtful.
Many young children respond well to visualizing or imagining words "bouncing off" of them. It provides them with the mental image of not having to accept or believe what is said. An effective visualization is for a child to pretend he has a shield around him which helps him imagine that the teases and bad words are “bouncing off.”
Kids have abundant imaginations and can have fun creating and drawing their own visualizations. A boy who enjoys bowling drew a picture of a bowling lane. Every pin had a mean word written on it. He said, “I can bowl the teases away.” A girl who loves gymnastics said, “I can flip the teases away.”
Reframing: Taking the Tease as a Compliment
Reframing is changing one's perception about the negative comment. It is accepting the tease as a compliment rather than an insult or put-down. This strategy conveys “appreciation” of the comments rather than being upset. For example, a child teases another about her glasses, "Four eyes, four eyes, you have four eyes." The child being teased could politely respond, "Thanks for noticing my glasses!" A first-grader told me that this strategy “takes the tease out of it.” The tease is usually diffused because there is not a reaction of anger or frustration.
If your son or daughter is called a “walking dictionary,” a reframing response would be “I take that as a compliment.” Other reframing responses: “Thanks for your opinion. How nice of you to pay me so much attention.” As with all the strategies, the 3 R’s are necessary: rehearsal, repetition and review.
Agree with the facts.
Agreeing with the facts can be one of the easiest ways to handle an insult or tease. A child can agree with what is true, but not in a self-degrading way. The teaser says, "You have so many freckles." The teased child responds, "Yes, I have a lot of freckles." The teaser taunts, “You are so short!” The teased child can answer, "I am short. I am the shortest person in my class and in my family." Many kids are surprised to realize that agreeing with the facts can quickly stop the teasing.
The response of "so?" to the teaser conveys an indifference that the tease doesn't matter. Children find this response simple and successful. This strategy is humorously addressed in Bill Cosby's book The Meanest Thing to Say. Saying “so” is similar to an emotional shrug and conveys an indifference. It should be said casually, not sarcastically.
Respond to the tease with a compliment.
When a child is teased, he or she can respond with a compliment. Paying the teaser a compliment often diffuses the situation quickly. Example: “You are such a slow runner. Why do you have to be on my team?” Responding to this with a compliment would be “You are really a fast runner. I wish I could run as fast as you can.” Another example: “You hair looks so weird to today/A bad hair day?” The response could be, “Your hair looks great today.”
Humor shows that little importance is placed on the put-downs or mean remarks. Kids can chuckle, laugh or say something funny. Laughing can often turn a hurtful situation into a funny one. However, bigotry, mocking of physical and mental disabilities and similar cruelties are never laughing matters.
Ask for help
If the teasing continues, it may escalate to bullying. At that point, it is necessary for a child to seek adult assistance or intervention. Kids need to know the difference between tattling and reporting. Reporting a teasing or bullying situation to an adult is crucial in ensuring safety.
We teach our children “stranger danger” skills so that they are prepared if approached by someone they don’t know. We can successfully empower kids with skills to handle teasing in the same pro-active and preventive way. Kids cannot control the words or actions of the teaser, but they can control their reactions to the teasing. Preparing kids to know what to do or say when someone calls them a name or makes fun of them is the first step in bullying prevention!
About the blogger: Judy S. Freedman, a licensed clinical social worker and bullying prevention specialist, is the author of Easing the Teasing – Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying. She lectures and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals throughout the country. Learn more about Judy and her work at www.easingtheteasing.com.