In preparation for Bullying Prevention Month, which is coming up in October, we are sharing some of Gina Savoia Stepp’s key tips to teaching kids constructive social skills at home.
By Gina Savoia Stepp, Mom Psych
October is Bullying Prevention Month, so once again it’s time for schools and community organizations to raise awareness of the effects of bullying and plan prevention efforts. Bullying carries hidden costs to everyone, of course. We know that negative consequences of bullying follow children well into their adult lives, affecting their physical health as well as their mental health. Some victims will even become vulnerable to suicide and other forms of self-harm.
The good news is that prevention efforts really do help—especially when teachers and administrators refuse to tolerate bullying and commit to supporting a unified code of conduct on a schoolwide basis. On the other hand, community efforts that focus on individual bullies don’t fare as well. But as a growing body of research is beginning to tell us, successful bullying prevention is not just a topic for schools and communities. Parents also have a part to play in laying the groundwork for bullying prevention—long before their children ever turn up on their first school playground.
One recent study, for instance, found that when parents give their children opportunities to learn how to solve problems constructively in a warm, supportive atmosphere with clear boundaries (known as “authoritative” parenting) the likelihood of becoming either a victim or perpetrator of bullying is reduced. In contrast, authoritarian parenting (characterized by harsh, negative parenting practices, including neglect) was associated with increases in bullying experiences.
The effects of harsh (authoritarian) parenting were associated with both victims and perpetrators of bulling, not solely victims. Nevertheless, children who are exposed to negative parenting—including abuse and neglect, but also overprotection—are more likely to become victims of bullying.
The role of overprotection wasn’t as clear as it might seem on the surface. Certainly it could be that children who are overprotected fail to develop the autonomous skills that prevent victimization. But it may also be that parents become overprotective in response to children who are less assertive. Either way, however, children can be taught constructive social skills at home that will support organized bullying prevention efforts in the wider community.
How can parents work toward this? Besides making sure that they are modeling empathy and cooperation in their own relationships, there are many ways parents can actively encourage children to demonstrate what are called “prosocial skills.” But there are three basic prerequisites:
1. Children need access to one another. Without playmates to practice with, the principles parents teach are simply an academic exercise. Playmates can be siblings or friends, but children should have fairly regular access to others who share their interests and skill levels.
2. Children need recreational time for creative play. Childhood playtime is a prime training ground for kids to learn how to interact in supportive ways. Having fun together cements relationships and offers rich opportunities for the development of social skills and behavioral and emotional regulation.
3. Children need supervision appropriate to their age level and interpersonal skills. When conflicts arise, adults can use them as a teaching tool to demonstrate the principles behind resolution strategies and how to apply them. Those providing supervision should also establish clear consequences for behavior that demonstrates disrespect for others. It should go without saying that violent, abusive or humiliating treatment should never be tolerated between children, nor should they be demonstrated by parents.
Unfortunately, many parents simply shrug off squabbles and fights between children, and some even see them as a necessary and beneficial preparation for “real life.” Mounting research contradicts this assumption, however. Children do learn a great deal about conflict resolution as they interact with peers, but these skills aren’t instinctive. They need adults to set clear expectations and intervene appropriately—otherwise “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression. Of course, for their involvement to be effective, parents need basic positive-parenting skills, and they must practice what they teach. We fight a losing battle when we try to teach something that’s unfamiliar to us.
The same principles apply in sibling relationships. For many children, siblings are the earliest “peers” they will have, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this is where patterns that underlie bullying behavior often begin. If these relationships seem to be characterized by bickering, sarcasm, rivalry and competition, it may be time for parents to ask themselves some searching questions: Is my children’s behavior simply a reflection of the behavior they see in me? Could I be encouraging competition through preferential treatment or by comparing one child to another? Do I help each of my children identify his or her unique strengths, and notice and give them positive feedback when they try to do well—even if they don’t succeed perfectly?
We learn best from those we love, and we look for feedback that tells us we are succeeding in their expectations of us. As we learn to love and appreciate each child uniquely, and respond to their needs without partiality, we are likely to find that our children will mirror our outlook, reflecting it in their relationships with siblings, playmates and classmates. We may not be able to completely bully-proof our children—but we may be able to raise a generation that values empathy and compassion and refuses to tolerate bullying behaviors.
Gina Savoia Stepp is a family psychology writer with a master’s degree in forensic psychology and a focus on trauma, resilience and attachment. The publisher of an online science magazine titled Mom Psych, she lives with her husband and three daughters in Southern California.