I think as parents, we all have similar goals. We want to love and nurture our children and teach them the skills they need to form healthy respectful relationships. None of us ever looks at our child and thinks, "Oh, hmmm. I think I'm going to teach my child to call names and belittle their peers today." Given that, and the stereotypical bully image that comes to mind most often when we hear the word bully, it can be very concerning to learn that our child is acting like one toward others. Many parents simply refuse to believe it. After all, they know that their child is sweet, considerate and respectful, far from the classification of a bully!
So when I tell you that there are ways you may be contributing to bullying behavior in your child, I understand the immediate defensive thoughts that come to mind. But these are things that we all do, including myself! As bullying is a behavior that occurs most when we feel the need to gain some sort of control, our need to be in control can often cause us behave in ways that we don't want our children emulating. Here are 5 behaviors I have seen many adults do, including myself, that can have a pretty big impact on our kids.
Putting down others in front of children. Perhaps you've had an altercation with a friend or a family member. You jump on the phone to call a person of support and vent about it. This is a normal response, and something many of us do when we are angry.
Often times, we don't give much thought to the little ears that might be within range to take in what we're saying as we begin insulting everything we can about this person. In our anger, we may attack this persons behavior, appearance, we may use derogatory adjectives such as ugly, stupid or crazy. We may even do worse and call them terrible names.
Even if we aren't doing this TO the person we are mad at, the negativity our children see that is directed towards someone else can have a really strong impact on them. The words you use will come to mind for them, whenever they feel angry towards someone else. And talking about a person behind their back can often can lead to exclusionary behavior, which is simply another form of bullying.
Putting down ourselves in front of children. Part of teaching anti-bullying attitudes to our children, is about teaching them tolerance. We tell them all the time that it's great to be unique and we need to celebrate our differences. But do our words always reflect this idea? Particularly when we are speaking about ourselves?
I have extremely curly hair. I honestly like it! But, I have been programed to think I should have straight hair. Revlon and Goody and other hair product manufacturers (not to mention the salons) have done a pretty good snow job on me, convincing me that if my hair is curly, it is undesirable and I must do something about it immediately. Recently, I was paid a compliment about my hair and I went on and on about how much I hated it. I looked down at that moment and saw my 4 year old daughter with her beautiful mass of curls and it hit me. Here I was, not only insulting myself, but I was insulting her and all of my kids - because they all got the curly mops. I was, in front of an audience, teaching my child self-hate. Inexcusable! I made a vow then and there to never straighten my hair again, and to use respectful language when I talk about myself.
That was a pretty straightforward example. The truth is, you never do know what aspect of yourself your child will inherit, or even what part of yourself you child admires about you and hopes one day to gain. In other words, you may not even be aware of how your putting down your child, when you are putting down yourself.
Your opinions on yourself and others have a direct influence on how your child will perceive themselves and their peers. If you complain about your weight, you're putting pressure on your child to remain thin and implying that to be otherwise is unacceptable. When they go to school and see a child who is overweight, all of the insults they heard you use towards yourself will instantly be triggered and they direct those thoughts at that child.
I am not saying that we should put on our perfect-pants and pretend we do not have room for self improvement, that is actually a healthy attitude to teach our children. But it all comes back to language and whether the words we use to describe ourselves are constructive or hurtful.
Lack of consideration toward others. Similar to the first topic, but more in the frame of how you treat others when you are upset. When you are driving down the road with your precious cargo on board and another driver cuts you off or drives recklessly, how do you handle it? It's normal in those moments to become very upset, after all, you know all too well what can result from dangerous driving.
I have experienced this and acted very badly. More than once, when I felt another driver had placed my children in danger, the angry words escaped my mouth and that finger flew up and out the window before I was even aware of it.
So how does this translate to my child and bullying? Well, I know what provoked me into such a strong reaction. It was the mental images that flooded my brain in those seconds of my children laying on gurneys, their bodies broken. It was the phrase, "lacerated spleen". It was the memory of the twisted mangled car they towed into my high schools gym to scare us off of drinking and driving. It was knowing what can happen when drivers are unsafe. But our kids don't know this. They have no mental references to explain our behavior. All they know is that Mommy got mad, used cuss words, yelled at someone, and did something funny with her hands just because she was angry.
While it can be extremely hard to keep calm in those moments and we may not always be successful, it would be a terrific model for our kids to see. And if we do muck it up and behave poorly, it might not be a bad idea to discuss it afterward.
Always having to "win". Oh boy. I had no idea I was doing this one until recently. Having a few kids, responsibilities of household, spouse with needs, and a never ending to-do list, I feel like I'm always rushing. Don't we all? So when I was walking into a store and saw a little old lady about to enter at the same time, I had a strong urge to rush past her and body-check her if necessary, just to get in the door first. How absurd! And I realized, I do this a lot. Not the body-checking of course, but speeding up to "get there first".
I stopped to think about what lessons I was teaching my children by doing this. Obviously, I'm not bullying anybody. I don't even think that it's blatantly disrespectful. But it is an aggressive habit, and aggressive habits have a way of escalating into over-competitive behavior. While competition can be a healthy practice and push us to excel in life, over-competitiveness can lead to unwarranted aggression as the need to win all of the time overrides a normal sense of priority. As I feel that bullying is a tactic used to gain and maintain control, the need to win all of the time translates to me as a need to gain control. For something so small and unimportant as being first into a store, elevator, the first one through a 4-way stop, etc. it seemed to me that my priority should be placed more on courtesy to those around me and not beating them out.
Creating insecurity. I consider this also in the realm of "stripping children of power". As I stated above, bullying is often a direct response for a need to control. If your child feels they have no control or power when they are with you, they may seek it from their peers.
I noticed a few weeks back that my third child, who is five, was bullying his friends. He wasn't calling them names or hitting them, what I was noticing was a need to control. He would take all of the toys away from them and place them in a cabinet, and then stand in front of the cabinet, refusing to let them have them back. I was also noticing that he would be demanding during play, and expect them to play what he wanted, the way he wanted. While most of us are faced with this sort of behavior at some point, I felt it was different with this child. I classified it as over-assertiveness. And I realized that as a third child, he must feel pretty powerless when he is at home. He not only has to do what his two parents are telling him, but his two older brothers who tower over him tend to boss him around.
I have talked with my family members about the need to treat Adam as an equal member in our household. To respect his body and his rights and not use our size or age as excuses to make him do things. As his parents, it is sometimes necessary for my husband and me to insist he do things, even if he doesn't always want to. But we take care to do so respectfully and gently. The older brothers are no longer allowed to be in control of him, no matter how tempting it may be to ask them to bring the kids in from playing, or put the kids in the tub, or help get the kids dressed. Too many chiefs can definitely make the little Indians feel really small.
**Sources: "The Power of Validation" by Karyn D. Hall, PhD & Melissa H. Cook, LPC
How do you handle tense situations when dealing with other adults, particularly when your children are present? Do you ever catch yourself putting down another or yourself only to realize your child shares this quality?