Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dear Dr. Jill on Bullying

Dear Dr. Jill:

It seems that teasing and ridicule have become the norm for both fourth and fifth grade students.  I don’t want my daughter to participate in hurting other students or be hurt herself.  What can I do?

Yours truly, Concerned

Dear Concerned:

I sure remember a certain amount of teasing and “picking on” that went on when I was in school, but I recall most of it started in Middle School, not Elementary!   While it seems adults of every generation  have shaken their heads and muttered, “What is wrong these kids today?”, children today live in a fast paced world with  stresses most of us couldn’t even imagine when we were young.  Children are exposed to complex adult behavior (and misbehavior) at younger ages than ever before.  Politeness, respect for authority or expertise, and good manners are not particularly encouraged in today’s culture.  Often children are permitted to be inappropriate with adults because they are considered to be equal to adults in their rights, preferences and opinions.  Unfortunately, as the teasing and ridicule demonstrates, children generally lack the judgment for this much democracy.  Children copy what they see.  When TV, movies, and video games consistantly portray sarcastic, rude, and mean interactions, children learn this as the norm.  Children generally don’t engage in unstructured play anymore.  Much of this street and playground activity provided a natural classroom for peer relations (not that it wasn’t sometimes painful…) that today’s children cannot learn from.

This insight is helpful, but it doesn’t suggest much that we can do immediately.  Solutions can include:

Talk to the principal, school counselor, and your children’s teacher about the “social environment” in the school and your child’s classroom.  While many schools provide instruction about values and interpersonal skills, they often move on to another module and never follow up or put into practice what they have taught.  Appropriate behavior is not a one shot deal, continuous attention, correction and feedback are necessary to make such behaviors routine.  Ask the teacher to to do what he can to create and atmosphere of mutual respect and kindness in your child’s classroom.If you are unhappy with the social environment encouraged or reinforced by the authority figures in the school make your displeasure known.

What kind of a role model do you want to be?  If you speak in a sarcastic or contemptuous voice, expect no different from your kids.  If you tease them, they will tease others.  If you ridicule them, ridiculing others will be natural to them.  If you are disrespectful and unkind, the apple will not fall from the tree.  If you cannot control this behavior in yourself and you are the “grown-up”, how can you expect something better from your child?  If you are out of control, individual or family psychotherapy may be necessary.

Discuss and role play appropriate behaviors.  Point out example s of the right way you want things done.  For example, you might say, “Suzie was very polite when she came to borrow that egg for her Mom, don’t you think so.”  Or, “One of my customers was so nasty to me.  This is what he did … and I felt so hurt!  I would never treat anyone like that.”  Also, “Good job, you played nicely with Ethan and shared your toys.  I know he’s looking forward to having you come play at his house.” Comment on your child’s tone of voice.  Give them feedback on how you perceive them.  Children are not good at seeing themselves from another’s perspective.  They often think they are being clever and funny.  When they find out their behavior is hurtful or mean, many kids are horrified.  Talk to children about why kindness matters and how it works in the long run.  Ask them to consider the long -term consequences of mistreating others (for ex: no one will invite you to their parties).

Read books and see movies together where the characters are kind and considerate.  Be careful about the video games you buy for your kids or let them play.  Strike up conversations with your children about the characters and what’s “cool”.  Teach your children to admire characters who are smart (like Harry Potter) rather than the nasty ones, like (iforgothis namethe blomdboyfrom slytherin).  Ask them how they feel about seeing others, even if its just “virtual” “being treated badly.  Virtual violence can damage perspective as much as “real” violence.

In addition to teaching “Just say no!’ to drugs, we also need to teach “Just say no!” to nasty behavior.   Consider alternative ways for children to get others to notice and like them.  Teach them to stand straight, look teasing/ ridiculing kids in the eye, and tell them assertively that they are being mean.

The best way to make your child part of the solution rather than part of the problem is to make kindness, consideration and respect a part of their daily lives.  Children learn what they live.  Teach them well.

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