November 21, 2010

Families Today: Path to teen bullying begins at an early age

By DR. T. BERRY BRAZELTON and DR. JOSHUA SPARROW

The wave of suicides among adolescents and young adults who have been mercilessly bullied on the Internet is a national tragedy.

The roots of bullying begin much earlier -- at age 4 and 5, when children become aware of their differences and comment on them openly as they work to understand them.

At this age, children are learning about right and wrong, good and bad. They're bound to feel that everything must go into one category or another.

Differences can call up a child's insecurity -- the basis for taunts and teasing. the fifth year, a child learns she can use words to hurt: "Your skin's dark. You're fat." The other child senses the scorn in the first child's voice and winces. The teaser feels powerful. Underneath, she may be frightened of the power of teasing and of her own aggression.

Gender is one of the first differences that children recognize. Boys tease girls. Girls tease boys. Each teases his own gender for seeming like the other. Underneath the teasing is a question: "Is it OK for me to be the way I am? And to like her as she is?"

Skin color is another difference. If it weren't for adult prejudices, children would be unlikely to see different skin colors, facial features or hair textures in positive and negative terms. Children learn racism from the adults around them.

It's not useful to pretend that we're all the same. We're not, and 4- and 5-year-olds realize this. Can they understand that we can be equal even though we're different?

Rather than telling children what to think, encourage them to think carefully about their assumptions: "OK. So her eyes are different from yours. His skin is different from yours. What do you think that means?" Give your child a chance to ponder the question. Then, you might ask, "How can you tell if someone is a friend? what they look like? how they act? what's on the outside, or what's on the inside?"

HELP FOR THE BULLIED AND THE TEASED

Safety comes first. Parents will need to find out whether the bullied or teased child is in danger. They may have to escort him to school and be more of a presence in places where the bullying occurs, such as the playground. They can also discuss the situation with teachers and other parents.

Although more adult supervision can help, if it conveys the impression that the victimized child is receiving special treatment, it may backfire and lead to more teasing when adults aren't around. More adult protection than necessary can also leave the victimized child feeling even more helpless and vulnerable. Teasing and bullying are more effectively addressed when the rules are spelled out and consistently enforced for all the children.

The victimized child will need help to learn to protect himself. Parents can share the child's feelings with him: "It feels awful when someone is so mean." Talk it out with him. Remind him of his strengths. Offer him other ways of looking at himself and his tormentors so that he doesn't have to take the teasing to heart. He can be helped to see that he has power over whether he lets these taunts get under his skin.

As my mother used to say, "When other kids tease you, just picture them without their clothes on. But don't tell them it's your secret weapon!"

A child who is bullied may find it helpful to take a self-defense class so he can project an air of self-confidence. Such classes are available for children as young as 3.

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