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Getting Ready for School 
Raise resilient children: Peer relationships & bullying

We continue to see the results of harm being done by children who have been teased, put down, or physically harmed by family and peers with little or no community or peer support. They strike out and the media emphasizes the harm and the tragedy done by them to their communities and others. This month's tip includes some thoughts from my experience teaching the martial arts for many years to young children and talking with them often about bullying. First, let's look at the word bully, which I consider a loaded word.

Something about labeling children and people as "bullies" or "the bullied" sets them apart from us and may allow us to not intervene. I think many people have an emotional response to the word "bully" based on our own life experiences. And, I haven't found a consistently better word or way to talk about the disruptive and harmful peer relationships that happen for children and adults. That is a topic for future discussion.


I have found in my many years of work with children that adults modeling strong and healthy peer relationships can influence children's peer relationships. As you probably already know, it is in watching our examples with others that our children decide how they will be in their relationships. Bystanders in bullying situations have a big influence on how groups and social circles respond to bullying. Teachers, parents, coaches, families, and peers are all critical in helping children understand what to do when they themselves experience bullying or when they see others being bullied.

For those of you who have read JoAnne's book, Caring Discipline, as you consider bullying, remember the importance of recognizing the ways adults sabotage their own discipline. I think reviewing the need to pay positive attention to children at neutral times (see Chapter 3 in Caring Discipline) will be instructive in the work with bullying behaviors. The strong sense of self that comes from this positive attention encourages children to speak up about bullying behavior. I think that strong sense of self is preventive for both the Bully and the Bullied. Children with a strong sense of their own value and a belief that they are loved just as they are have much less need for the attention-getting behavior of bullying. And children who are bullied are more resilient if they have a strong sense of their own value, again, just as they are.

Teaching problem solving behaviors (see page 95 in Caring Discipline), role playing bully situations as practice, and using situational stories about bullies can be a great way to help children open up and think about peer relationships differently. I like this link to a page with a lot of information about bullying for middle schoolers:


Finally, reach out for help in school and elsewhere. Counselors often have great resources for working through bullying behavior. Parent Support Center will have some workshops in the coming year to work on increasing
self-esteem and dealing with bullying behaviors. Yes, it is hard. Change happens in small steps. If you need it, please look for support and take the first step.

Pay Positive Attention at Neutral Times


Power struggles are especially destructive to the adult’s efforts to instill a sense of responsibility in the child. When the parent or teacher lectures, advises, reminds, warns, scolds, even by so subtle a method as arching an eyebrow or using a blaming tone of voice, “Now you’ve done it, and after all the times I’ve warned you,” it becomes easy for the child, who is trying to protect their inner sense of integrity and self-worth, to blame the adult. The child begins to feel that he or she is the injured party. In the eyes of the child, the adult becomes the cause of the child’s misbehavior, or negative behavior.

One thing that can make a world of difference in your child's willingness to follow directions or stop their misbehavior is to  take steps to improve their sense of self and feelings of belonging. In our culture it may seem that it would be counter productive to help our children feel better about themselves as a way to have them follow directions and requests without argument or constant struggle.  In the past it was often common practice to be sure the child understood they were doing the wrong thing through punishment. 


However let's take a moment and rethink that idea. In the book, Caring Discipline, chapter 2,  JoAnne Nordling describes the three basic behaviors as positive, neutral, and negative.  Positive Behavior is not hard to understand or recognize as  adults generally feel good about it, the child's behavior is pleasing to adults.  Negative Behavior is, generally, also easy to spot. To quote JoAnne, "the child is doing something the adult does not like. The child may bring home a poor report card even thought they are capable of average work. The child may whine, steal, fight with siblings, avoid doing chores, and on and on." 


Neutral Behavior is, however, harder to notice.  Again, as JoAnne says, "At these neutral behavior times we hardly even notice the child.  The child may be reading a book in the school library, petting the cat, lying outside on the grass watching ants, or helping big sister build a model car. When the child walks through the kitchen as you are working at the sink, or walks into the classroom on the way back from the restroom, for example, they are engaging in a neutral behavior. There is nothing special about neutral behavior.  At these times the child is neither a bother nor a help. The child is just there, alive and breathing, doing their own things in the world. When adults do notice this kind of behavior, the adult usually does not feel much of anything about it. In fact, the child's neutral behavior is often taken for granted and generally ignored."

In Caring Discipline, the recommendation is to pay attention in a positive way to neutral or positive behavior 4 times for every one negative attention from the adult.  Seeking out and noticing neutral behavior is critical in being able meet that need. The positive attention can often be best given in a non-verbal way; a smile, a touch on the head or shoulder, a heartfelt greeting at the end of the day, recognition and a thanks for something they did that is not out of the ordinary for that child.  If you consider it for a moment you may be able to see how much the parent or other adult paying attention in a positive way may boost the child's sense of self, feelings of belonging, and feeling that they are loved just as they are, unconditionally loved. 


A reminder is important here: The behavior you pay attention to will usually be the behavior you will continue to receive from your child.  

If you are intrigued and want more information about this idea, check out chapter two in Caring Discipline or join us for a parenting class!

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