When it comes to bullying, parents advice is often wrong


Earlier this month, a high school in New Jersey canceled its traditional homecoming celebration for fear that the event would become an exhibition in “mass bullying.” The cancellation came after school officials at Rumson-Fair Haven High School in Rumson, New Jersey discovered that students were planning to elect a homecoming king and queen whose matches would be so improbable that students could mock them, according to news reports.

While mass bullying events are rare, a much more common occurrence is the individual targeting of school children for a variety of reasons: their appearance, their clothes, their less-than-perfect social skills, and so on. These episodes are not only painful for students but also for their parents. Parents want so badly to help. But how exactly?

Unfortunately, parents often provide advice about teasing and bullying that, although well-intentioned, only worsens the situation for their children, according to Elizabeth Laugeson, an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA Semel Institute and a licensed clinical psychologist. Because October is National Bullying Prevention Month—and because the topic of bullying has been in the news a lot recently-- we asked Laugeson to provide some advice on handling these situations.

While there are several different forms of bullying—such as cyber-bullying, the most common form that students and their parents encounter is verbal bullying, better known as teasing, Laugeson says.

According to Laugeson, most young people say that strategies such as walking away or ignoring the bullies don’t work. If you walk away, the bully usually follows you. If you ignore them, they persist in their teasing and make you look weak.  Tell an adult and the teaser gets mad and wants to retaliate, says Laugeson, the founder and director of the UCLA PEERS Clinic, a training program for developmentally challenged youth.

“Adults give kids bad advice on bullying,” Laugeson says. “Every instinct that we have tends to be wrong.”

The truth is, most adults probably aren’t aware that these strategies don’t work. Typically, they themselves were given much the same advice when they were kids, she says. Laugeson advises parents to learn from the ways that they most socially savvy kids respond to teasing.

“These kids give a short verbal comeback that delivers a message that what the person said didn’t bother them and, in fact, was kind of lame or stupid,’’ Laugeson says. “They may support their words with body language: rolling their eyes or shrugging their shoulders, which shows they don’t care.”

What are some examples of verbal and nonverbal comebacks that are known to work well? Laugeson suggests that kids try some of these responses:

Verbal Comebacks:

  • “Whatever…”
  • “So what?”
  • “Who cares?”
  • “Big deal.”
  • “And why do I care?”
  • “Is that supposed to be funny?”

When children give a short verbal comeback that shows what the bully said didn’t bother them, they take the fun out of teasing. When they act like what he or she said was lame or stupid, they embarrass the teaser, making it less likely that he or she will tease them again, Laugeson says.

“After making a verbal comeback, the child should remove his or herself from the bully rather than standing there and waiting for more,” Laugeson says. “But never walk away without giving some verbal comeback showing that what the person said didn’t bother you.”

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