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Q: Every time there's a school shooting, like the recent one in Santee, California, I'm terrified for my own children. I keep reading about how the children who go on these rampages often feel picked on, tormented and bullied by other more popular students. How can I educate my own children about the harmfulness of bullying and teach them what to do if they're ever picked on?
A: Every day across America, children are being bullied, whether it's teasing, name-calling, hitting, extorting money or worse. Think back to your own childhood and you'll remember how one of the most humiliating things to happen to you was being singled out because of how you dressed, the fact that your ears stuck out, or that you were too fat or too skinny, too smart or too "dumb."
Although most bullying takes place in school, few teachers or administrators have responded to bullying with the appropriate degree of concern or with an appreciation for its potentially serious consequences for both the bully and his or her victims. That is, until now.
In recent years, as we have seen some targets of such taunting resort to deadly violence in retaliation, educators are waking up to the serious nature of bullying. Although schools are beginning to adopt anti-bullying programs along with conflict mediation, the experts advise that it's also important to declare war on bullying in the home beginning at a very young age.
The earlier children learn not to bully, the better. We need to teach even the youngest child what positive friendships look like, how to be a good friend, and the importance of not ganging up on someone. Children also need to be taught what to do if other children are picking on someone or not being inclusive.
Children should be encouraged to speak up if they are being bullied either psychologically or physically. Keeping an open line of communication with your children should help you keep tabs on whether they are ever being victimized. Encouraging your community or your child's school to start a violence prevention initiative could be one way to make sure all children learn the skills and behavior to create a culture of nonviolence.
Tragedies like those at Columbine or Santana High School, while shocking, present the perfect time to discuss these issues with your children and to help them learn to empathize with others who have become the butt of jokes and the target of. Here are some resources you can use to help your child become neither a victim nor a bully.The Experts:
You Can't Say You Can't Play By Vivian Gussin Paley (Harvard University Press) The author, a kindergarten teacher, interweaves her private reflections, her conversations with children, and a story she spins to tell what happened when she instituted a radical new order in her classroom that prohibited children from excluding anyone who wanted to play. The book speaks to the issue of rejection and its consequences, and proposes an interesting solution.
Bullying: Peer Abuse in Schools Check out this thorough manual from the U.S. Department of Education on how to bully-proof your school and community and institute a conflict mediation program. Complete with a long list of related books, videos and sources, plus strategies for teachers, parents and students.
Ending teasing and bullying School psychologist Israel Kalman started this informative Web site in reaction to the Columbine massacre to help kids deal with teasing and bullying and stop becoming victims. It's full of tricks to help kids who are suffering and teaches parents how to respond when children are picked on.
Bullies are a Pain in the Brain (Free Spirit Publishing) By Elizabeth Verdick This book helps 8-12-year-olds deal with bullies; what the author calls "self-esteem vampires." Blending humor with serious, practical suggestions it will help kids understand, avoid and stand up to bullies while preserving their own self-esteem. Kids will like the cartoon explanations, while parents will find it a great conversation-starter.
How to Handle Bullies, Teasers and Other Meanies: A Book That Takes the Nuisance Out of Name Calling and Other Nonsense (Rainbow Books) By Kate Cohen-Posey Written for parents and children, this book is full of practical strategies for defusing bullies and offers suggestions for confidence-building exercises.
Bullies & Victims: Helping Your Child Survive the Schoolyard Battlefield (M Evans & Co.) By Suellen Fried, Paula Fried A guide to helping children survive schoolyard bullying. The book examines the different forms of bullying and different levels of response.
Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) ESR is a national leader in conflict resolution, violence prevention and training for children and the adults who teach them from preschool through high school. If you are interested in starting such a program in your community, check out their violence-prevention program, Resolving Conflict Creatively.
Talking to Children About Violence Guide In the wake of the Santee, California shootings, the ESR website also offers excellent suggestions for parents and educators about how to talk to children about violent events. Print out their guide, "Talking to Children about Violence and other Sensitive and Complex Issues in the World," written in the aftermath of the tragedy in Littleton, CO.
Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence In response to recent violence across America, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence was founded to assist groups committed to understanding and preventing violence, particularly adolescent violence. Search here for research literature and resources on the causes and prevention of violence and information on various programs available.
Bethany Kandel is the mother of two sons and the author of The Expert Parent: Everything You Need to Know From All the Experts in the Know (Pocket Books).