Latalia White, AMFT

Estelle Eramus at The New York Times recently wrote about a new approach to bullying; her findings are summarized below.

If you are a parent, chances are you’ve worried about the possibility of your kid being bullied or bullying someone else, if you haven’t already experienced it with your child. It’s likely that there was less conversation about bullying when you were younger, but nowadays you frequently hear reports of bullying and theories about how to stop it in the media. These theories regarding how to deal with bullying have changed over time, so it can be confusing to figure out which approach is most effective for your child. Izzy Kalman, a school psychologist who specializes in bullying and author of the book Bullies to Buddies: How to Turn Your Enemies into Friends, offers advice that may differ from the parent-centered approach that has dominated the national conversation in recent years.

Understanding the Approach

Kalman instructs children to think of the bully not as an enemy, but as a friend, employing the “golden rule.” This approach also teaches children to not let the bully see their actions result in an emotional rise out of your child, because bullies feed on getting that kind of reaction. Kalman also believes in empowering your child by allowing them to work out conflict with their peers without your direct assistance. (If the conflict escalates to a point in which there is physical violence or serious threats are made, it’s time to get an adult involved, but otherwise Kalman believes in the child handling their own conflict.) This removal of adult leadership and negotiation differs from many anti-bullying efforts promoted in schools today because Kalman believes that adult intervention escalates bullying.

Additionally, this approach aims to remove some of the power from words: by harshly punishing kids for what they say, the power of their words has been magnified. Kalman also believes that a heavy emphasis on punishing children for their words removes the ability for kids to both come up with and implement their own solutions to their conflicts. This kid-centric approach is controversial, so while some experts agree with Kalman’s methods, others think that it relies upon children to act in ways that they are not yet developmentally equipped to do.

Implementing the Approach

If you want to test out Kalman’s methods, he suggests teaching your child upfront that bullies pick on children who will react in a defensive way or become upset; your job becomes showing your child how to remain calm and unaffected by a bully’s words. If you want to follow this approach, you should teach your children about freedom of speech so that they understand everyone has the right to speak as they wish, but your child is in control of their reaction, which reduces the power of bullying. It’s also crucial to teach your child to implement these methods prior to any bullying, as they are most effective if implemented during the first instance of bullying. Otherwise, if the bullying escalates quickly to a more severe level, your kid will likely need to involve you and other adults, at which point they lose the benefits of this approach.

After you’ve explained the theory in age-appropriate ways to your child, you should sit down with them and role play possible bullying scenarios. Take common bullying scripts and revise what your child would say in response; for example, if your child is told that she can’t sit with a group of girls at lunch, instead of talking about how that’s unfair or exaggerating a “I don’t want to sit with you, anyway” response, coach her to respond that she will not sit with these girls at lunch and even wish them a good lunch with a calm demeanor. If this feels hard to do, family therapy would be a great place to work on bullying prevention and bullying interventions!

Erasmus, E. (2019, May 23.) How to bullyproof your child: Teaching children how to take the air out of teasing. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com