Parents can help fight against bullying

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on November 8, 2012)

We hear a lot about bullying these days, and that is a good thing. Bullying behaviors have too long lived in the shadow realms of childhood, isolating and shaming those who are victimized. The more we know about bullying and become attuned to its indicators the better we are able to dismantle its weapons and restore children’s sense of safety and well-being.

My Peabody colleague, Professor Maury Nation, studies bullying and the creation of safe environments in which children can learn and succeed. Nation cautions that even the word bullying is problematic because of the associations it conjures. Bullying and harassment incorporate a range of behaviors that transcend physical aggression. Children being bullied may be isolated from peers, may be the victims of gossip or rumors or suffering from other forms of intimidation. Increasingly, bullying behaviors occur on the Internet.

Parents wondering whether their child is being bullied should be on the lookout for a variety of clues. If your child used to enjoy school but is now reluctant to go, if they have become disconnected from former friends, if they are spending excessive time alone, these might be indicators that something has gone wrong.

The best source of information is your own child. Parents should ask about children’s social lives as well as their homework. If something is wrong, most of the time your child will let you know. Even children who are unwilling to communicate can appreciate the simple act of a parent caring enough to ask. They may come to you later on their own. Beyond your child, ask their teacher or another adult who knows them well if they have noticed any changes in patterns of behavior. Teachers cannot see everything, but if alerted, often they can begin to help.

School counselors are an underestimated resource. These days a majority of schools can provide resources to help resolve bullying. Mechanisms may include their talking with the offending child, with that child’s parents, or if necessary referrals for counseling or disciplinary steps.

Nation says that with elementary-age children, the best thing parents can do is to make sure your child has friends. Enroll them in structured activities to help them find peer groups and develop social skills or simply invite other children over for free play. Children in middle school or high school face the greatest challenge, but rates of bullying decline after fifth or sixth grade.

A small number of children face long-term challenges. If your adolescent is a frequent target, do not hesitate to involve counseling professionals.

Parents may make use of the resources found at www.stopbullying.gov and http://bullyingprevention.org.

Ultimately, says Nation, “If you know your child and see a significant change, trust your judgment. But parents can also take heart in the fact that children are resilient. In almost all instances, this will pass.”

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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