October is Bullying Awareness month and schools around the country are talking to kids about how to not be a bully, what to do if you see bullying, and what to do if you are being bullied. The trouble is, sometimes kids confuse the message. They overgeneralize the term “bullying” to other types of behavior that can be very typical (necessary, even) for school age kids. True bullying refers to repeated actions (physical, verbal, or cyber) designed to intimidate, humiliate, or hurt a person who is perceived to have less “power” than the other person or group. If a child is being truly bullied, they will likely need a good deal of support from adults and peers to get through the experience. Being the victim of bullying can have serious and lasting effects. At the same time, believing that you’re being bullied (or that you are bullying) when you’re not, isn’t good for your social development either.
School aged kids are learning to find the sweet spot between meeting their own needs and desires (aka being “selfish”) and meeting others’ needs and desires (aka being “a follower”). None of us would be very successful in personal or professional relationships if we focused only on our own needs and desires nor would we be very satisfied if we focused only on others’ needs and desires. As we grow up, we learn when and how to put ourselves ahead of others. Likewise, we begin to recognize situations when it’s prudent to prioritize others’ needs and desires ahead of our own. And, in many cases, we end up trying to find a compromise so that each individual’s needs and desires are considered.
This skill is harder to learn and implement. A quick google search of “learning to say no” yields 74,500,000 results. When kids are allowed to practice saying “no” to their peers without the fear or guilt of being thought of as a bully, they begin to learn the art of interpersonal effectiveness. That is, they learn how to get what they want while maintaining a relationship without sacrificing their self-respect. They will make mistakes. They will lean too heavily towards getting what they want sometimes and their peers will call them out on it. They will end up “giving in” too much and will feel invisible or unappreciated. By making mistakes, experiencing consequences, and reflecting on the situation, kids will learn how to develop and hone their interpersonal effectiveness skills.
You can help your child develop these skills. First, when you hear of a conflict, listen and then help your child summarize the problem. For example, “ok, so it sounds like you really like playing soccer at recess. You also like being friends with Lizzie. She doesn’t play soccer and is upset because she feels like you’re choosing soccer over her. Is that about right?” Once you and your child have agreed on a pretty accurate summary, you can help her think through her next steps. Work together to come up with a goal such as “have fun at recess and keep Lizzie as a friend.” You can then brainstorm possible solutions such as “try to convince Lizzie to try playing soccer,” “play soccer at recess but sit next to Lizzie at lunch,” “play what Lizzie wants,” “play soccer some days and play with Lizzie on other days,” or “play soccer for part of recess and play with Lizzie for another part.” Sit back and allow your child to take the lead with brainstorming. Once you and your child have come up with a good list of possible solutions, read through each option and ask, “would this help you meet your goal of having fun at recess and keeping Lizzie as a friend?” Allow your child to make the decision of how to proceed and then check back with her to see how she feels later. Ask her if it’s helping her reach her goal of having fun and staying friends. Ask her if she feels her wants and needs are being met, if she’s being a kind and respectful friend, and if her friend is being kind and respectful towards her.
Do all of this without judgment, your own goals, and your own biases. What I mean is: check yourself. If you have an inkling that your child “gives in” too much to others, don’t try to steer her in the direction of doing what she wants for once. Or, you may be very concerned about making sure she is “nice” to others and you might accidentally send a message that keeping others’ happy takes priority over her own personal boundaries. Allow your child to take the lead and then experience the consequences. Over time, she may begin to realize that she does, in fact, lean in the direction of prioritizing others’ needs and she will learn to correct that when necessary.
Keeping the focus on kindness and respect (towards yourself and others) allows you and your child to navigate many sticky situations successfully.