Chances are you remember the bullies you encountered from your childhood. Some used verbal barbs as their weapon of choice, while others actually threatened other children with physical violence.
Today, bullying is still a major problem that causes fear and insecurity among thousands of children nationwide.
But what makes some children more susceptible to becoming a bully's victim than others? With a "no tolerance for bullies" policy, is it fair to blame the victim? Absolutely not! However, parents might wish to further understand why their child might draw the attention of the bully on the bus or in the playground.
Although it is important to equip a child with strategies for recognizing and handling potentially threatening situations, it is equally important to prevent his victimization in the first place.
All children (and adults) deserve respect, and therefore a bully should not be allowed to prey on his peers, no matter how vulnerable some of them may be.
What are the factors that could make your child the target of a bully? Here are a few characteristics frequently observed in children who are bullied:
Overly sensitive, anxious and quiet: These children can often be easily intimidated and publicly display their distress, which often fuels a bully who wants to assert him/herself over others.
Social isolation with few good friends: These children often express feeling ill at ease with peers and don't develop the social network that bullies tend to avoid. Bullies like to focus on children without friends who could come to their aid.
The appearance of physical weakness or fragility: Bullies like to divert attention from their own problems, so children with overt vulnerabilities are often their focus.
Age "inappropriate" approval-seeking from adults: A teen, for example, whose best friends are adults, has not learned to connect with peers. These children minimize their inability to relate to peers and, therefore have poor social judgment. This often puts them at risk to be bullied.
Overprotected children: Children who may be on a bully's radar screen are those who do not resolve the usual childhood conflicts directly with peers and rely on adults to manage problems quickly. These children are obviously most at risk when not in the presence of adults.
Physically/psychologically different children: Whether a child is under/overweight, has braces, severe acne or is developmentally disabled, these "differences" are what bullies tend to spotlight.
Provocative behavior: Some children may deliberately, or perhaps unknowingly, entice a bully's menacing behavior and not know when to stop their own seemingly innocent actions. Often a child who behaves like this is unable to defend himself when the balance of power suddenly shifts to the bully.
Understanding these factors is helpful in determining if your child is at risk to be the victim of a bully. But if your child is not telling you he is being bullied because of shyness or fear of retribution, how else might you know he may be a victim? You can tune into your child's behavior for signs that he is being victimized. Here are a few questions to consider about your child's own susceptibility:
Has your child become increasingly isolated?
Does he/she exhibit a new or unusual aversion to going to school or increase in the reports of illness?
Has there been an unexplained drop in academic performance?
If you observe any of these changes, it's time to talk to your child. Try to determine how he is feeling about school, peers and even home. Getting children to open up about feelings and worries can be difficult. It's important to ask your questions in a way that encourages your child to respond. Some basic tips are:
Be gentle: Don't let your initial worry seep into your discussion with your child. You are probing about something that probably makes your child already feel uncomfortable and unsuccessful. Temper your tone and attitude and be accepting so that he is willing to open up.
Monitor your emotions: Even if you are annoyed or disappointed about your child being unable to defend himself, your being gentle and understanding can open the door to a real discussion about their concerns.
Take your time: Let your child set the schedule. If he initially doesn't want to talk, drop the subject and get back to it later.
Take a walk, shoot some hoops: A relaxed, spontaneous talk will reduce your child's sense of feeling "on the spot" with you about this or any issue.
How can you prevent your child from being bullied in the first place? These sound like old chestnuts but bear repeating:
Be involved: Take the time to know your child's friends, teammates, teachers and coaches. Volunteer in their activities and role model cooperative relations with your peers.
Praise: Remember to appropriately praise your child when he has successes even at small things. A touch and a reassuring "You're a great kid" is the best inoculation against the insecurity that puts children at risk to be bullied.
Encouragement: Even the most annoying child has a warm and fuzzy core. Continued encouragement and affection is the fuel that grows healthy, assertive children.
Respect: Your respectful behavior toward your child will help him learn that he deserves respect and will reciprocate it. He will also learn that he does not have to tolerate bullying behavior.
Keep up the dialogue with your child about what is going on at school.
If you suspect your child is being victimized, assure him that he is not at fault and should not be ashamed to discuss the situation with you. Let him know that bullying is not acceptable and that you want to help him solve the problem.
Being bullied can significantly affect a child's current and future well being, so it is very important that you work to help your child find solutions.
Ed Moran is a clinical social worker at Family Center, a United Way partner agency offering education and human services to children, adults and families in Fairfield County. He provides psychotherapy for children, adolescents and their families and runs after school psychotherapy groups for high school boys as well as teen focused anger management groups. Moran is located at Family Centers' Bridge Street office, and can be reached at 203-629-2822.