Bullying revolves around psychological abuse, and while abuse of any type is unpleasant to endure, there are things you can teach kids to do that will minimize the impact as it is occurring. Below we list some coping strategies for bullying that kids can utilize in the here and now:
Coping Strategy #1: Rehearse a Self-Mantra
Have kids create a mantra; something to say to themselves in their head whenever they experience bullying that can help blunt the pain of it. For instance, women who endure verbal abuse and domestic violence are able to cope better when they remind themselves of how silly and trivial their spouse’s anger is through a quick self-mantra. Bullied children can get the same benefit from this. So teach kids that if they’re at school and they encounter someone who feels a need to get an insult or two in, they should take a deep breath and think to themselves something like . . .
- There he goes again, Mr. loud and obnoxious
- Well hells bells. I’m not wearing the “proper” clothes? It must be the end of the world!
- Gee, how intelligent of them (not)
- I must be awfully important for you to focus so much of your life around me.
- I might pay attention to you . . . if you had anything worthwhile to say
- Some of us have better things to worry about
Who made you the Queen of righteousness?
You can sit down with a child and help them find two or three of these phrases (or any of their own) that work best for their particular situation. Have them say it a few times, or even do a quick role-play session where they repeat the mantra. It may seem like a small thing, but you’d be amazed how much it can blunt the impact in the moment at hand. When someone insults us, it instantly taps into our emotional centers. The act of consciously saying something to yourself that puts this person’s cruelty in perspective is the psychological equivalent of deflecting the punch. It won’t completely remove the pain, but it will blunt the impact and soften the blow.
Coping Strategy #2: Help Kids Analyze Rejection and Cruelty
Critical thinking is an important part of emotional regulation. When something happens to rile our emotions, our lower brain areas become active and our higher reasoning centers go offline. The act of consciously taking a critical look at rejection to analyze the situation, especially with the help of others, puts control of our emotions back into the executive centers of our brain, thus helping to quell our negative thoughts.
Psychologist Daniel Gilbert states: “When we face the pain of rejection . . . the psychological immune system must not defend us too well (‘I’m perfect and everyone is against me’) and must not fail to defend us well enough (‘I’m a loser and I ought to be dead’)” (Gilbert, 2006, p. 162) Helping children find that critical balance is key: You want kids to care about how they present themselves, but you also don’t want them crumbling in the face of baseless, obnoxious criticism. The way to do this is to teach kids some critical analysis skills for everyday life.
When children experience bullying, parents and teachers should help them analyze the situation by asking themselves questions like . . .
- Did I make a mistake or do something hurtful?
- Are my actions encroaching upon this person in some way?
- Is this anger driven by me (I hurt him) or from him (thoughts or ideas that exist in his mind)?
- Does she have a reason to be so upset? Should this really be bothering him?
- Is there some other motive that could b driving such behavior?
- Is this opinion based on a universal value (Kindness, compassion, honesty, civility, consideration for others), or is it based on a subjective opinion?
If after asking these questions kids can find some fault within themselves, tell them they should remind themselves that nobody is perfect and that it’s human to make mistakes, and then to look at ways they can make amends and do better in the future.
If, on the other hand, after analyzing the situation in this way they can find no reasonable justification for this person’s hostility (as is so often the case with bullying), then they should dismiss this person’s hostility outright as both baseless and immature. If you can get kids in the habit of this critical reflection, it will help them become mores socially responsible themselves and less vulnerable to baseless criticism.
Coping strategy #3: Help them find humor in the situation
There’s nothing funny about a bully’s antics when your child is the target. Yet on the same token, most bullies’ behavior could be quite humorous indeed, if viewed through the proper looking glass. It tends to be so superficial and ridiculous, and children can be reminded of this through snarky humor. Using humor in such a way can help erode the aura of respectability that a bully’s tactics might otherwise enjoy. Here are a few examples:
Seriously? You’re that preoccupied with the pants I’m wearing? I can’t help it that you constantly want to stare at my backside.
Do your best superficial girl impression and mock how silly it is that your life revolves around gossip, clothes and makeup.
Poke fun about how this person’s life must be so pathetic that they have little else to do but sit around all day trying to come up with ways to annoy you: “I bet at this moment they’re on the phone talking with their friends about what happened today, because their own life is so boring that you’re the highlight of their day. Isn’t it sad, that the only way they can feel good about themselves is to try and make you feel bad?”
Use the word “drama” to describe it, because that’s often precisely what it is: A play, an act, a pointless exercise in theatre that has little relevance to anything of importance in this world.
Just be sure that as you go about this fun-poking, you try to keep it lighthearted and non-malicious, pointing out the silliness of what they do while still encouraging kids to feel compassion for these poor lost souls. You don’t want to encourage the same type of behavior a child’s bullies might engage in.
Coping Strategy #4: Encourage Kids to Exercise
This suggestion seems basic, but most people don’t have an appreciation for just how important exercise is for brain functioning, resilience, and overall mental health. When you exercise, it changes your body’s physiology in numerous ways. It releases positive neurotransmitters in the brain that can prime for a positive mood, lasting up to 24 hours afterwards. It releases a protein known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is crucial for learning and brain functioning. Exercise alleviates stress and reduces inflammation. All told, exercise is one of the most profound ways to boost mental health, and any cardiovascular activity that gets your heart pumping for at least 15-30 minutes will bring these benefits.
Tens of thousands of human studies have documented this link between physical activity and good mental health, and studies of rodents have even shown a direct link between exercise and the ability to cope with bullying. Mice experience many of the same problems with bullies that humans do, and when placed in the same cage with stronger, more aggressive mice, the stronger ones tend to bully the meeker ones. A number of studies have documented how bullying increases the stress response and leads to abnormal behavior and health detriments in rodents.
Yet it’s also been found that the meeker rodents who had a chance to exercise before encountering their bullies (through access to running wheels and other exercise equipment in their cages) exhibited resistance to this stress. They were submissive and subdued while living with the mice bullies, but bounced back to normal behavior once alone again, whereas the mice without access to exercise continued to show pathological behavior associated with stress and depression: acting nervous, cowering in dark corners, sullen behavior or slow, lethargic movements. The researchers concluded that even a small amount of exercise gave the meeker mice emotional resilience against bullies. (Stamatakis, 2012)
Children may not be mice, but their physiology works in similar ways, and there’s every reason to assume that regular exercise benefits bullied kids as much as it does bullied rodents. So encourage your kids to exercise, and make sure they understand why this is so important.