The stats are well-known. Seventy-seven percent of school-age kids are bullied, yet only 10 percent tell their parents about it, and even fewer tell their parents that they bully or stand by and watch, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Is bullying just something kids have to outgrow or can parents and teachers step in to help?
Roberta Richin, executive director of the Council for Prejudice Reduction at the School of Social Welfare, Stony Brook University Health Sciences Center in Stony Brook, suggests parents play a daily, active role in helping their kids who are bullied or who bully. "The idea is to make helpfulness a habit," said Richin. "I like to call it RICE: Respect, Impulse-Control, Compassion and Equity or the Connecting Character to Conduct. Your children may roll their eyes or laugh at you for reading another article or going to a workshop, but they are paying close attention to what you do and what you expect them to do."
Just like anything, it can take time and patience to learn how to be intentionally helpful instead of hurtful. "It's a little like learning how to brush your teeth," Richin said. "Like plaque on our teeth, hurt feelings and anger can build up every day. It helps to manage bad feelings each day through family routines that build communication, establish positive expectations, resolve conflicts and help young people practice how to use RICE to handle strong feelings in a positive way."
Here are five things you can do daily to incorporate the RICE strategy into your family's routine:
What can parents do? In the car on the way out or when saying goodbye at home, smile and share a hug or a high-five. Ask them how they are feeling and ask what's one thing they plan to do or say that day to help themselves and others learn well and stay safe. Help them leave the house feeling confident. "It may feel awkward at first, but even when time is short, take a few moments before they leave every day to remind them of these things," Richin said. Parents can say things like: "Remember -- be good to yourself and everyone else. I love you!" Or, "Remember -- I treat people well at my job and you have to treat people well at yours."
During the school day
What can parents do? If you text or talk to your children throughout the day, gently remind them of what you discussed that morning -- to be good and helpful to themselves and others. Make it fun and have a competition with each other: How much positive fun and support can you send each other in 140 characters?
What parents can do? Whether you pick them up from school or meet them at home, drive them to or from events or practice, try to turn off your own phone and radio for a few minutes (and ask them to do the same). Take a few minutes to focus on sharing the day with each other. "Make a ritual of it," Richin said. "Listen. Really listen to them. This will encourage them to be more open with you, whether they are happy, angry or upset." Try to ask them different questions each day, such as: "What are some things other kids and teachers said to you today and what are some things you said or did to them?" Or, "Did you feel bullied by anyone?," "Did you do or say anything that could make anyone else feel bullied?"
In the evening
What can parents do? Whether you're driving your kids to different activities or watching TV together, discuss how someone on the news or in a program is demonstrating a behavior you think is bullying. "Ask your children what they think," Richin said. "Let them know you do not think this is funny or acceptable. And ask them what they may do in similar situations." Remind your children that the school code of conduct is much like human resources at your job. "For example, if you call people names at most jobs, you can be sued or fired," Richin said. "Have your children observe how people behave in the community and within your family. Ask them how they think that behavior could improve." Also, encourage other activities to do at home rather than talking on the phone and using the computer. "Limit their text and talk time each month. If they exceed it, let them wait for the next month." And, only allow Internet use in areas of the house where you can easily interrupt them and keep an eye on social networking sites. "Parent supervision keeps millions of young people safe from their own impulses and the impulses and actions of adults and other youth online."
What parents can do? Spend at least a few minutes doing some ordinary routine together, with your children helping you in some way. Some examples include setting up lunch for the next day, walking the dog, putting out clothes for the next day, reading a book together, and so on. "Being helpful at home equips children with a sense of power and confidence, which can help protect them from bullying others, and even from being bullied," Richin said. Each night, Richin suggests keeping devices like phones and computers in another room. "Kids need to sleep and do not need to get involved in conflicts that tend to escalate overnight," she said. Before they head into bed, Richin suggests sharing some positive conversations. Ask them about funny things that happened during the day or what they're looking forward to for tomorrow. "Encourage them to share something that may have been difficult during the day as well," she said. "Then, simply end the conversation with a simple, 'I love you, sweet dreams.'"