How To Protect Your Kids From Bullying For Life | Harassment

What is bullying?
It is a pattern of aggression supported by someone with more power, targeting someone with less power. The key, says Stella O’Malley, author of a groundbreaking new book, Bully-proof kids, it is a repeated behavior. But beneath this simple definition lies a complex, multi-layered situation that can be extremely difficult to unpack. What is power and where does it come from? With children, O’Malley says, it’s often because they have a higher social status or have been tricked into believing they have one.

A very big issue, which she returns to time and time again in her book and in our conversation, is that bullying is more than what happens between two people: the bully and the target. What about the kids O’Malley calls “wingmen,” the bully’s supporters, the kids who think the bully is the bee’s knees and want to stand in their favor? What’s going on with the children watching in silence – the passers-by? Who sees what happens, when everything starts to kick in and out quickly? Who denounces injustice? To understand bullying, you have to look at the big picture.

Because, says O’Malley, bullying affects absolutely everyone in the group, room, office or playground; even bystanders – those who do or say nothing when harassed – because, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, not talking is talking; not to act is to act.

Could any child be a bully – and a target?
Yes, said O’Malley. “I’ve never met someone who I thought could never be a bully, or someone who could never be a target. The truth is that each of us has our dark side – and it’s only when we can recognize it that we become better at it.

Bullying behavior in children, O’Malley says, tends to be very animalistic, with a strong instinct in many children to join the pack. “Maybe it takes 18 years to get civilized, and that’s where parents come in. There’s so much we can do to make a difference.”

What can parents do?
The most important thing, says O’Malley, is to pay attention to your child, so you can determine what their vulnerabilities are. You know your child better than anyone: what are their emotional needs? Do they crave love and belonging, or do they crave power, status, and recognition from others? The first of these might be a passive, sweet child who might be more vulnerable to bullying or being recruited by a bully to be one of his followers. Likewise, if your child needs power and recognition – and this is a great cocktail for success in many areas – it can easily trigger bullying behavior, and as a parent you need to be aware of this and be active in how you handle it.

“A child like this has wonderful strengths, but he has to learn empathy,” she says. “If you can nurture a sense of kindness in this child, help him understand how other people feel, you will fight his bullying tendencies. Every child, every human being has his faults. Bullying has become demonized, but children can easily fall into it and we need to help them out. And the good thing, says O’Malley, is that it’s relatively easy to help an elementary school-aged child not be a bully. “They are ready to be told how to behave and they can learn to be different.”

Artwork: Cara Rooney/The Guardian

What if parents were bullies themselves?
Sometimes you come across a family where everyone is a bully: the parents, the older siblings who bully the younger ones, and the younger ones who bully others at school. These families are very difficult to help; but they are also quite rare. What is much more common is the individualistic behavior of parents that could make their child a bully.

What type of behavior should I watch out for?
There is a certain type of child, warns O’Malley, who goes to school with the haughty presumption that he is better than others. Make sure your child isn’t that child: The idea that your offspring are inherently smarter, prettier and more capable in all areas is, in fact, a facet of your own dark side – and passing it on to your child will lead to big trouble.

The best approach is to think from the perspective of other children and encourage your child to do the same. “When you ask your child about their day, don’t just ask about lessons and what they ate for lunch,” says O’Malley. “Ask them, did everyone have a friend at recess today? And if they say someone was left out, ask them if they smiled at that person or go ask him if he wanted to play?

O’Malley prefers the term “tricky people” to “bullies,” and the truth about tricky people is this: They are everywhere, and they will continue to be everywhere, throughout your life. According to O’Malley, one of the greatest gifts a parent can give their child is the ability to handle difficult people. “It’s not about being big; it’s about being smart,” she says. “It’s about your strategy, it’s about how you treat these people. If you teach your child that some people are downright evil and will beat you up, that’s not empowering. But if you teach them to recognize the delicate person, to be wary, to fix things around them: it’s rewarding. You taught them something huge.

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Who are the “amounts”?
There’s another group and it’s the one O’Malley wants to highlight: the upstanders (she’s one herself; indeed, her book is kind of upstanders basically). “Upstanders weigh. They’re wired to weigh in — even when it has nothing to do with them,” she says. “They can be really annoying people, actually.”

But upstanders deflate the bully or bullies and the important thing to realize, and make sure your child realizes, is that this can be a very subtle role. “If you’re on public transport and someone is insulting someone else, even just making eye contact with the target and giving them a supportive look, that helps reduce bullying. Crossing the car to stand by their side, perhaps engaging them in a conversation about travel or the weather, will help reduce the power of the bully.O’Malley’s mantra is to embrace the role of the honest – and in schools in particular, she thinks nurturing a culture of integrity would make a huge difference.

Illustration: a child in bed at night, hiding his phone from a parent
Artwork: Cara Rooney/The Guardian

Has digitization changed the nature of bullying or just given it a new arena?
Bullying in the digital age is the same as the old one, says O’Malley, but there are some important differences. First, the digital world has created a much faster path to target dehumanization – and dehumanization is the horror we are trying to avoid.

It’s very difficult, says O’Malley, to bring a dehumanized child back: that’s why she advises it, if you feel it’s happening to your child in any setting, and if the school or authorities aren’t working not with you urgently to deal with it, you need to get the child out quickly.

But digitization is already working to dehumanize people: vast swaths of social media, for example, aim to create a view of someone who is far removed from the person they are in real life. On social networks, celebrities can give the aura of being so successful, so beautiful, so inhabitants of another universe, that it is easy to attack them. The tragedy of Caroline Flack is an example given by O’Malley: “We’ve created a culture where pressing ‘Like’ makes you part of the crowd, makes you a spectator. We need to be much more aware of this.

Can bullying do any good?
Absolutely, says O’Malley. Bullying is unpleasant, but it happens; and understanding what is going on, and digging deeper into our own roles and the roles of our children, is an exercise in character improvement. “Whether your child is the bully or the target, the bystander or the winger, they can learn from it and they can get away with it. Being bullied is a traumatic situation and like any trauma, you can come out of it stronger, especially if you have the right support. It can make a person greater of an individual. It can give them a vision of the human condition that they did not have. And learning to manage it can lead to a better understanding of the tricky people your child will continue to encounter throughout their lives.

Bully-Proof Kids: Practical Tools to Help Your Child Grow Confident, Resilient and Strong by Stella O’Malley is published by Swift Press March 31. To support the Guardian, order it at

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