Helping Your Child Thrive in School

In this interview, Dr. Lianna Bennett, a psychologist at Alpha Omega Clinic?s Fairfax office, talks about how parents and teachers can recognize the signs of bullying and how they can help children develop assertiveness and healthy friendships. Dr. Bennett has worked in Catholic schools to train and implement bullying prevention.

JH: What are some common signs that a child is being bullied that parents and teachers should be aware of?

LB: Parents and teachers should attend to their child?s attitude and behavior. Bullying often (but not always) is accompanied by changes in the child. For example, if your child previously enjoyed going to school, but has suddenly started complaining about school, is refusing to go, complains about frequent stomach aches or headaches, feeling sick or faking illness, there may be something happening at school that your child is attempting to avoid. Children who are being bullied may also exhibit unexplainable injuries, have ?lost? or destroyed clothing, jewelry, or electronics. They may exhibit changes in eating (if their lunch is being stolen) or difficulty sleeping because of nightmares. Bullying often makes it difficult to focus in school, which may lead to declining grades. Furthermore, children who are bullied often feel helpless and may exhibit signs of low self-esteem and some may exhibit more extreme or self-destructive behaviors such as self harming behaviors, running away from home, and talking about or attempting suicide.

Bulling occurs most frequently at school, so teachers, administrators, and playground monitors should attend to the dynamics and behaviors of their children. ?Parents can help their children by encouraging them to talk about their daily life and by talking to them about bullying. If concerns about bullying come up it is essential for parents to respond promptly. The primary reason that children do not tell their parents about being bullied is because they don?t think that they can do anything to help them.

JH: What are some common signs that a child is a bully?

LB: Children who bully others often do not fit the stereotype that adults have of what a bully looks like. They do not need to be stronger of bigger than those they bully, but there is an imbalance of power?whether it is in social status, intelligence level, or strength.

Certain signs to be aware of include: getting into verbal or physical fights, teasing or ridiculing other students, coming home with unexplained extra money or new belongings, blaming others or refusing to accept responsibility for their actions, low parental involvement or bullying/aggression in the home, and having friends who bully others.

JH: How can a parent or teacher tell the difference between a bully and a ?bossy? or ?willful? child?

LB: In order for behavior to be considered bullying the behavior must be aggressive (either verbal, social, or physical), and it must involve an imbalance of power, and repetition. A schoolyard brawl between Joey and Timmy over who goes first at kickball isn?t necessarily indicative of bullying. However if every day Mary is told by Suzie that she doesn?t get to play with the group because she is stupid, which leads to Mary being socially isolated, this may be indicative of bullying behavior. If a parent or a teacher suspects that bullying may be occurring, it is essential to respond as quickly as possible to communicate the message that bullying is not acceptable.

JH: What are some effective ways that children can deal with bullies at school?

LB: The most important thing that a child who is being bullied can do is to tell an adult, either their parents or a teacher. Because of the power imbalance between the bully and the victim of bullying, children are often ineffective at dealing with bullying on their own. Parents can help their children first by helping them understand what bullying is so that they can better identify it. Parents and their teachers can encourage their children to speak out if they witness bullying or if they themselves are bullied.

If a child is being bullied the best response is to tell the bully ?Stop? in a calm, clear voice and to walk away if speaking up is too hard or not safe. Children should not be encouraged to fight as that increases the risk of injury, rather they should be encouraged to find an adult who can stop the bullying

JH: How can a parent help their child become more assertive?

LB: Parents can encourage assertiveness and self confidence by practicing and encouraging these behaviors at home. Parents can help their children foster a sense of self confidence and self esteem through engaging in activities that they enjoy and through the acquisition of new skills. Teach your children that learning new skills takes time, be supportive and cheer them on. Praise your child and catch them when they are being good, make sure that the focus of your praise is not just on their accomplishments but on the effort. Teach your children what appropriate assertiveness is and role play with them different scenarios (e.g. asking a teacher for help or telling a bully to ?stop.?).

JH: How can a parent help their child form healthy friendships?

LB: If parents want their children to treat others with kindness and respect they must model that behavior for their children. Children learn how to interact with others by how they see their parents interacting. Parents can do this by treating everyone, especially our own family members, with dignity and respect through words and actions. Reward and praise your children when they are behaving appropriately because children need encouragement to know that they are on the right track. Further, children will learn how to deal with conflict and stress in the ways that they see their parents dealing with them. If dad comes home from work, stressed out and frustrated and immediately retreats to his study or zones out watching TV without interacting with the family, children aren?t going to learn how to appropriately reach out to others for help and support.

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