The words “back to school” evoke an almost Pavlovian response in parents—gotta get organized, buy the new sneakers and school supplies, stock up on sandwich bags, and persuade the kids to cram in the summer reading they’ve ignored for two months. But there’s another element of school preparation that I think may be more important than all of that: equipping your child to understand bullying and how to prevent it.
I know: It’s sad, but it’s true. As long as there have been human beings, there have been bullies—children and adults who seek the gratification of attention and power by tormenting others physically, emotionally, or verbally. These days, you’ll find earnest anti-bullying campaigns in schools across the country, many of which involve “zero tolerance” policies and “No Bullying!” posters in the hallways. These are good starts. But the real solution comes from a place you might not expect: children’s own emotional intelligence!
Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to recognize and manage your emotions in socially appropriate ways. Dr. Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence devised the RULER method for teaching EQ skills: Helping children recognize emotions in themselves and others by identifying facial expressions and body language; equipping them to understand the causes and consequences of emotion; providing them with a rich vocabulary for feelings so that they can label their emotions; empowering them to express their emotions in healthy ways; and teaching them simple strategies to regulate, or manage, their emotions—such as releasing anger through exercise, deep breathing, or counting to 10.
Decades of research has demonstrated the benefits to children of having well-developed EQ skills: They do better in school, have an easier time making friends and developing healthy relationships, and experience less anxiety and depression. These same EQ skills enable children to understand the emotions of others and to develop empathy—which benefits children who are bullied, children who witness bullying, and children who engage in bullying. How does that work?
Stand up for yourself. A child with strong EQ skills is better-equipped to recognize the nonverbal cues in another child: Is his face red? Does she look mad or mean? Then your child can spot a bullying situation before it happens. She will also have strategies for managing fear, and can stand up for herself by saying, “Please don’t speak to me that way,” by turning and walking away, or by joining friends or approaching a caring adult.
Stand up for others. A child with EQ skills such as empathy is more likely to have the presence of mind to help defuse a potential bullying situation. He can approach the child who is being bullied and say, “Let’s go get lunch” or “The bus is here” or “Come with me, I have something I need to show you”—anything that will create a distraction and cut off the bully.
Stop the bullying instinct. Children who bully often have powerful emotions and needs—anger, a strong desire for attention, the need for an audience—that they aren’t able to manage in appropriate ways. They can definitely benefit from EQ skills, which will help them understand what they’re feeling, why they’re feeling those emotions, and how to find healthy outlets that provide the same gratification they’re currently seeking through bullying.
What can parents do? First of all, pay attention to what your child is saying, and to what they’re not saying. Is she indicating reluctance to go to school, or suddenly complaining of stomachaches? Is he coming home with torn clothing, or with scrapes or bruises he’s reluctant to explain? He or she may be a target of bullying. Has your child witnessed a bullying incident? That, too, can be indirectly traumatizing for a child. Does your child have emotional outbursts that they can’t control, or anger issues in the classroom or with other children? He or she may be or become a bully. This is where adult intervention is critical.
Teach your child about emotions: Use a mirror to help them see what feelings on the inside look like on the outside. Give them a range of words they can use to describe their feelings—happy, silly, excited; sad, blue, unhappy; angry, mad, frustrated; scared, anxious, nervous; loving, caring, concerned—and encourage them to talk about what’s going on inside. Role-play with them, and suggest things they can say if they are bullied or witness a bullying incident. Offer them simple strategies for managing their emotions, such as the anger techniques mentioned above (you can find many others at http://themoodsters.com/all-about-feelings-downloadable).
Going back to school should be a time of exciting fresh starts, reconnecting with friends, launching new journeys of learning and discovery. The best way to begin the new school year is to make sure your child is well-equipped inside and out.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.