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Bully-proofing your kids

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Tue October 11, 2011
Working with children on their confidence level at an early age can help
Working with children on their confidence level at an early age can help "bully-proof" them.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There are things parents can do to strengthen their children before the bullying starts
  • Start early and help your child develop a sense of self
  • Encourage courageous behavior and help your child with physical confidence

Tune in all this week for a special series devoted to bullying and its damaging effects on our children, on "AC360ยบ" at 8 p.m. ET. Then tune in Saturday night at 8 ET for "Bullying: It Stops Here," a special town hall discussion led by Anderson Cooper.

(CNN) -- Miranda Jones can remember many afternoons in the counselor's office in her small-town Colorado middle school, crying about other kids relentlessly teasing about her weight.

She'd change clothes in the bathroom stall after gym so the other girls wouldn't laugh at her size. By high school, she was spending countless hours in the library reading to avoid social situations and the possibility of being teased. She rarely complained to her teachers, assuming they would just make it worse if they confronted her bullies.

"I went out on a limb (my freshman year in high school) and decided to join the speech and debate team, which filled countless hours of time that I would have otherwise spent being sad about my lack of friends," says Jones (who didn't want to reveal her real name because she's embarrassed by what happened to her). "Thanks to that activity, I actually made some wonderful friends. I had something to do every weekend. And I was good at it. That was the biggest thing, I think. I excelled at something that terrified most other people my age, and in that, I had some power."

Now at a top-ranked women's college in the Northeast, Jones is grateful her debate coaches helped her find something she loved that kept her focused and got her into college. "Without an after-school activity, academic support from adults and without constantly reminding myself that it wasn't going to last forever, I never would have survived the endless taunts of my peers."

Battling back against bullying
Teen bullying interveners
The roots of bullying
Getting to the root of bullying

It's unfortunate that our children will get bullied at school, whether it's about their appearance or dress, their academic ability or hobbies, a disability or just the fact that they're the new kids in town.

Schools with vigorous anti-bullying programming are more likely to stop bullies in their tracks, but not every school has a commitment to stopping the abuse. However, there are things parents can do to strengthen their children before the bullying starts, convince them to tell parents if a verbal or physical attack occurs, and keep them safe.

Start early. Does your child understand the difference between thinking, feeling and action?

Starting when their son was 3, psychologist Tammy Hughes and her school psychologist husband started teaching him. At night, they'd say, "Tell me three good things that happened to you today." This helped him make the distinction between events and his feelings about them.

Once he had that mastered, they added, "Tell me three good things that happened to someone else (lesson: the world includes me and other people, their feelings and actions)."

Next they asked, "Tell me something you did that worked out well. Now, tell me something that someone else did that worked out well for someone else."

"These simple questions help children differentiate themselves and others, and (teach them) cause and effect. If you can connect these ideas and feelings, then it helps children to prepare to identify bullying -- negative versus positive behaviors -- and who did what to cause the outcome," says Hughes, chair of Duquesne University's department of counseling, psychology and special education and co-author of "Understanding Girl Bullying and What to Do About It: Strategies to Help Heal the Divide." "These simple steps help children to guard against blaming themselves for the bullying of others and to help them feel they can act to change the situation."

When their son turned 6 and was introduced to his school's formal bully prevention curriculum, he already knew how to talk about feelings and their source and how to act according to the school's instructions about bullying.

"Parents and teachers will find that it is not how savvy they are in their conversations with their child, but rather how often they engage the child in preparing for thinking, feeling and action when the parent is not around," says Hughes.

Develop a sense of self. A sense of self isn't about children feeling good all the time or getting a trophy for showing up to every soccer game. It's teaching a child to have core sense of sturdiness so her sense of who she is isn't defined by the whim of her peers.

Parents show their children they know them when they choose an activity with them, discuss personal problems, and talk about their day. It's also reflected when a parent makes a comment about something unique or challenging for a particular child.

"It's about parents really being tuned into their children and the kind of people they are," says Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of "The Parents We Mean to Be." "We want to reflect back to them who they are, whether they are spirited, soulful, feisty, funny or strong-willed. It's not explicitly praising them a lot that matters. It's demonstrating a deep knowledge of and affirming who they are."

Encourage courageous behavior. Bullying flourishes in school communities when most of the community stays silent while the bullies attack.

Bullies have power when the audience of bystanders is silent.

"When one kid gets bullied, everyone is silent or laughs or goes along with it because they don't want it to turn on them," says Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-author of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century." "They sacrifice someone to keep themselves safe."

Teachers and coaches can encourage students to speak up when someone is attacked. Any student can encourage members of their team or club to do the right thing, but those lessons often start at home.

Raise your child with character and values, sharing stories of people (including you) who have done the right thing in the face of adversity. That way they can stand up against bullying or other injustice when it occurs at school. "Character is about doing the right thing when nobody is watching or when it's hard to do," says Ginsburg. "The person with character says, 'not in my presence.'"

Look in the mirror. Become aware of your own behavior, because your children will copy you.

Parents who are reasonable, calm and practice problem-solving in the face of stress and uncertainty model those skills and attitudes for their children. Once they see it works, children can develop that peaceful approach to their world and the bullies within it.

"Parents whose default response is one of intimidation may inadvertently model bullying behavior for their children," says Donna Henderson, a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University. "Or, if parents are the targets of bullying behavior from other adults and they don't address it directly, kids will assume that's the way to respond to bullies."

Develop overlapping circles. Encourage your children to become involved in after-school activities and clubs that they enjoy.

That will help them make friends with different groups of children. If one group turns on your child, he will have other friends to support him and remind him he's not alone.

"This is great for building self-esteem and gaining a greater sense of purpose," says Virginia Wilkins, director of mentoring for College For Every Student, a nonprofit that helps underserved youth prepare for college and supports them once they're there. "Say my child is being bullied in an art group. Having other social groups lets my child experience something very different. It's not all or nothing."

Develop physical confidence. Some children benefit from developing a sense of their own physical strength, whether in martial arts or another discipline.

Being able to understand the physical movement of one's body is key to establishing a child's place in the world, says triple black belt holder Kris Wilder, a Franciscan monk and co-author of "How to Win a Fight." "The success of martial arts is that it creates an immediate and indelible link to the internal sense of a child's being via external drills and discipline," says Wilder, owner of West Seattle Karate Academy.

"This makes a child more confident, (which) carries over into how a kid holds himself in the world. Bullies are predators by nature and prefer the weak as prey. A confident child is less likely to be a victim, and martial arts provides this platform for creating a resilient, confident child."

When it's not what it seems. A Los Angeles couple brought their daughter to child psychologist Wendy Mogel because she was getting bullied in school. It turned out the girl was provoking other kids to bully her because she was jealous of the amount of attention her parents gave her little brother.

"She found she could get a tremendous amount of attention with a daily download of bullying and less attention would be paid to her adorable little brother," says Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers" and other books. "When they stopped rewarding her, it stopped. I advised them to catch her being strong and pay attention to that behavior."

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