Perhaps the most difficult aspect of bullying for parents to accept is that it’s not a problem you can solve for your child. He or she must face these battles themselves, and you can’t fix it for them. But there are several ways that parents can help their kids out in this regard and diminish the likelihood of their child being targeted to begin with.
1. Work with your kid on youth culture trends
While parents shouldn’t be a pushover who caves in to every little fad, nor should they condone or encourage blindly following the crowd, they should be flexible with their child in working with their kids on the latest trends. Too many parents approach youth culture in an adversarial role; acting as though it’s their duty to foil their child in every attempt they make to keep up with the latest trends. Whether you think these trends are silly or not is beside the point; the alternative is to hinder your child’s every attempt to fit in or having them go to school wearing that neon plaid sweater Aunt Mable knitted for them. Many parents essentially put a big bull’s-eye on their child’s back by trying to force them to adhere to their own beliefs about what they should be wearing, rather than letting youth create their own culture.
You should understand that there’s a difference between fitting in among youth culture and sacrificing personal values to fit in. Children who ignore the latest fashion trends do so at their own peril, and are going to stick out like a sore thumb. The good news is that no matter what the latest trends, many “safe” clothing outfits never go out of style.
The same can be said about what their peers are doing. Again, while we don’t advocate caving to every whim, we’ve seen kids made fun of because they’re the only ones in their class who hasn’t seen the latest Harry Potter movie, or is always one step behind on everything else their peers are into because they have parents who never allow them indulgences. This is especially the case in elementary school. Parents do have to say no at times and live within their means, but when a child routinely can’t relate to what their peers are seeing and doing, it singles them out as a target.
- A failure to work with a child on fashion trends can also drive a wedge between you and your child, because she’ll start to see you as the enemy; a clueless antagonist that is out to destroy her social life. As Rosalind Wiseman warns in response to a mother-daughter argument over being forced to wear a certain pair of shoes, “Those shoes could have become a source of humiliation for her, but she never told you. … A precedent is being established. She goes to you for help. You say no. She feels that you ‘just don’t get it.’ She does it anyway but sneaks behind your back. When she’s thirteen, it’s shoes; when she’s fifteen, it’s a seventeen-year-old boyfriend. So whether she grows up too fast is in large part determined by how you establish yourself as someone who listens and respects her problems and works with her to come up with mutually acceptable solutions.” (Wiseman, 2006, p. 109)
2. Help your child dress down
It’s true that many parents are fashion pariahs. Unfortunately, so are some kids. Certain children might need some assistance in “dressing down” to keep from sticking out. If your child is being bullied, help them blend. You might not be the best one to convey this lesson, but if you have a friend or niece or nephew who is more attuned to these things, see if you can schedule an intervention. If possible, with the help of a more fashion oriented person, splurge on some new clothes.
3. Help children expand their social skills in other ways
You can’t be there at school with them or hold their hand through life. But you can encourage your child to find activities that will help them expand their social skills, boost self-esteem, build confidence, and meet new people outside of the school setting. An easy way to accomplish this is to find out what a child’s interests are and then supporting them in these endeavors. There are dance classes, martial arts lessons, gymnastics, private cheer studios, paintballing leagues, and so on. The great thing about these activities is that they provide a way for kids to interact with each other that school settings simply don’t provide. Most have a more family-oriented or team-oriented atmosphere about them. Regardless of what cliques they may run with in school, when they share participation in a hobby like this, it facilitates connection on a different level. To a socially awkward child, these experiences can be extremely valuable.
Such activities also serve one more important purpose: they can help a child find purpose and feel like there’s at least some place where they feel they belong. As they build a particular talent, it can boost self-esteem to counteract what the bullies are saying. For some kids, this may literally be a lifesaver. It may even eventually turn heads at school. We’ve seen many cases of unpopular kids becoming respected and more popular when it’s suddenly discovered they have a hidden talent nobody knew about, such as dancing or music.
4. Don’t embarrass them
When your child tells you that something you’re doing is embarrassing, listen to them. It may not be right, and you may not agree, but you should be considerate towards their self-conscious perceptions. Sadly, many parents are inclined to double-down on their efforts when a child tells them they’re being an embarrassment. “Oh, what…I’m embarrassing you! Well then, let’s see what other things I can do to further make a scene!” Parents certainly don’t feel as though they should be an embarrassment, and so when their child insinuates as much, rather than listening, they tend to set off to try and prove that they shouldn’t have to be ashamed of their behavior.
What parents may not realize is that their kids will be punished for whatever youth culture foo-pahs or sins they commit. You’re not just making them self-conscious; you may be setting them up for a day full of torment and ridicule. You wouldn’t stand for it if a teacher spent a day abusing them, and you should try your best not to do things that will earn them such ire from peers, either.
Here are a few additional words of advice from school personnel:
“Some kids get teased because their lunches look and smell different. One girl brings the same lunch every day, and I know she would like to eat something else once in a while. In fact, she’s the first one with her hand up if someone is giving something away.”
– A New York cafeteria monitor
“I once had a second-grader whose mother sent her to school with a sippy-cup every day so she wouldn’t stain her shirt – even though her classmates called her a baby. The parents of a first-grade boy with long, curly blond hair wouldn’t let him get a haircut even after his classmates made fun of him and called him a girl. No student should be teased or bullied for any reason. But let’s face it: Kids can be cruel. When children have friends and are part of a group, it makes the school day so much more enjoyable for them. So listen to your child. Ask him what’s going on at school. And find out what you can do, within your power, to improve his school life.”
– A New York phys-ed teacher (Behan, 2012)