By BETH J. HARPAZ, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Teaching kids to become "bullyproof" is all the rage. Books, videos and websites promise to show parents how to protect their kids from being bullied; school districts are buying curricula with names like "Bully-Proofing Your School," a well-regarded program used in thousands of classrooms. Even martial arts programs are getting into the act: "Bullyproofing the world, one child at a time," is the motto for a jujitsu program called Gracie Bullyproof.
But can you really make a child invulnerable to getting picked on? And even if you could, should the burden really be on potential victims to learn these skills, rather than on punishing or reforming the bullies?
Parents and educators say when bullyproofing programs are done right, kids can be taught the social and emotional skills they need to avoid becoming victims. But bullyproofing is not just about getting bullies to move on to a different target. It's also about creating a culture of kindness, beginning in preschool, and encouraging kids to develop strong friendships that can prevent the social isolation sometimes caused by extreme bullying.
WHO'S GOT YOUR BACK?
Bullies "sniff out kids who lack connections or who are isolated because of depression, mental health issues, disabilities or differences in size and shape," said Malcolm Smith, a family education and policy specialist at the University of New Hampshire who has been researching peer victimization for more than 30 years. "So if you're worried about your child being a victim, the best thing a parent can do from a very young age, starting in preschool, is ask, 'Who's got your back? When you're on the bus, when you're in the hall, who's got your back?' If they can't name someone, you should help them establish connections to their peers."
Smith, who is working on a program called "Courage to Care" that's being tested in three rural New Hampshire schools, cited an example of a new boy who was being pushed and shoved by other boys in the hallway. "We didn't know how to empower him," Smith said, until the staff noticed that he'd become friends with a girl. "This girl is sweet but really assertive. What are seventh grade boys more afraid of than anything? Girls! So having her walk down the hall with this boy was the immediate solution to ending the bullying."
Psychologist Joel Haber, a consultant on the recent documentary "Bully," says kids should also have "backup friends" outside school through sports, hobbies, summer camp or religious groups. "That's hugely important, especially as kids move from elementary to middle school."
Haber says "most kids can learn skills to make themselves less likely to have the big reactions" that feed bullies.
"Let's say you're one of those kids who, when I make fun of your clothes, you get really angry and dramatic. If I taught you in a role-play situation as a parent or a therapist to react differently, even if you felt upset inside, you would get a totally different reaction from the bully. And if you saw that kids wouldn't tease you, your confidence would go up," said Haber
One way parents can help is to normalize conversations about school social life so that kids are comfortable talking about it. Don't just ask "How was school today?" Ask, "Who'd you have lunch with, who'd you sit with, who'd you play with, what happens on the bus, do you ever notice kids getting teased or picked on or excluded?" advises Haber, who offers other bullyproofing tips and resources at RespectU.com and is co-authored of a new book called "The Resilience Formula."
Bullies "feed on the body language of fear. It's a physical reaction — how the victim responds, how they hold their head and shoulders, the tone of voice," said Jim Bisenius, a therapist who has taught his "Bully-Proofing Youth" program in more than 400 schools in Ohio and elsewhere.
Teaching a kid to appear confident physically can sometimes be easier to teach than verbal skills, Bisenius said. "If a kid who's never been mean in his life tries to fake it, or tries to outdo a bully with a verbal comeback, the bully sees right through that."
Lisa Suhay, a mom in Norfolk, Va., said her 8-year-old son Quin was helped by Gracie Bullyproof, a martial arts program taught in 55 locations that combines verbal strategies with defensive jujitsu moves. Quin had been bullied so much on the playground that Suhay stopped taking him there. But she decided to give the park one last try after he completed the Gracie training.