It’s no secret that bullying is a major issue for kids. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school.
Even if your child is not getting bullied, odds are he or she has witnessed someone else fall victim to this behavior. In these situations, it may be tempting to stand by and watch it happen, but one of the most effective ways to stop bullying is to be an “upstander.”
An upstander is someone who recognizes when something is wrong and takes action. It’s a person who stands up for others and has the courage and empathy to make a difference.
“It’s never too early for kids to start learning to stand up for others,” said Elizabeth Svoboda, author of “The Life Heroic: How to Unleash Your Most Amazing Self.” Teaching children to be upstanders lays the groundwork for the type of moral approach they will take later in life.
“When kids summon the bravery to stand up for someone and they see a positive response ― maybe a bully stands down, or maybe a teacher steps in to fix an unfair situation ― they will feel proud and capable,” Svoboda added. “That encourages them to speak out again when they get another opportunity. In this way, being an upstander can gradually become part of their identity. They’ll grow into adults who are brave and experienced enough to speak up about abuse, danger, or injustice when no one else will.”
So how exactly can parents teach their children to be upstanders? HuffPost spoke to Svoboda and other experts to get their advice.
Start With Empathy
People who stand up for others generally do so out of a sense of empathy. The good news for parents is empathy is a skill that can be cultivated.
“The gateway to empathy is emotional literacy,” said Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and the author of numerous parenting books, including “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.”
Teaching children to identify their own feelings helps them recognize emotions in others and connect with them. It also helps kids recognize if someone is being bullied and think to themselves, “How would I feel if that happened to me? What would I want other people to do?”
“Kids have to learn to listen and watch,” said Heather Hansen, author of “The Elegant Warrior: How to Win Life’s Trials Without Losing Yourself” and host of The “Elegant Warrior” podcast. “We are often so tied to our phones that we don’t see and hear what is going on around us. Teaching children to read tone of voice, body language and facial expressions can be a game and make them put down the phone and look around.”
Emotional intelligence has many benefits beyond bullying as well. “Raising emotionally intelligent children increases their self-confidence, performance in school, and deepens their social relationships and ability to solve problems,” said Kerry Goyette, author of “The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence.”
Establish Your Family Values
While most schools have anti-bullying initiatives, parents should not fully rely on their children’s schools to teach them about the importance of being kind and standing up for their peers.
“Parents can reinforce what the school is teaching and do it in an ongoing way,” said Borba. “They can establish family expectations like, ‘In this house, we’re helpful, not hurtful. In this house, you don’t just sit back when something is wrong. You say something.’”
“Tell your kids you know it’s hard to be the first person to speak up, but that when they do, it will be worth it because they’ll be helping someone.”
– Elizabeth Svoboda, author
Teach Them To ‘Be The First’
“Be the first!” is a simple but powerful piece of guidance for kids.
“We know from social science research that when even one person is willing to speak up about something that’s wrong, others often follow,” said Svoboda. “But if no one is willing to be the first to say something or confront what’s going wrong, bullying or danger or abuse may continue.”
When it comes to bullying, a child can “be the first” by saying something like, “Hey, that’s really mean. Why are you treating her that way?” They can also be the first child to bring the bullying to an adult’s attention.
“Tell your kids you know it’s hard to be the first person to speak up, but that when they do, it will be worth it because they’ll be helping someone,” Svoboda said.
“Try talking to them about a time you wish you’d stood up for someone and didn’t, and how you later felt about that. Ask them if they ever found themselves in a similar situation. Did they wish they had spoken up?” she added. “Sometimes talking about those kinds of regrets, and thinking about how to handle things differently next time, can give kids the motivation to stand up for someone even when it feels hard or awkward.”
Talk Through Examples And Role-Play
Parents can help their kids act as upstanders by helping them recognize situations that would call for their help.
“It’s helpful to go through different scenarios with kids and ask, ‘Is this bullying?’” said Borba, noting that there are many guidelines and examples on stopbullying.gov. “Kids need to know lots of possibilities because every situation is different. It’s a tremendous relief to them because then they’ll know, ‘That’s when I can step in.’”
She also advised parents to ask “Is this bullying” while watching movies and TV shows with kids or reading books to them.
Once children are able to recognize bullying situations, they can think about what they would do in those circumstances.
“Just like anything else, we all need to practice standing up ― for ourselves, our teams, our friends,” said Hansen. “So role play and create some go-to responses. This helps with confidence.”
Figure Out Which Strategies Work For Them
Some kids may feel comfortable approaching a bully and saying something simple like, “Hey, that’s not nice. Cut it out.” Others may feel safer taking a less direct approach.
“Upstanding skills are teachable, and there are different kinds,” said Borba. “Figure out your child’s temperament level, which ones will work for them. Once you find the one that works, you can role-play and practice.”
For kids who feel less comfortable confronting a bully, they can try the tactic of befriending the victim. This is as simple as striking up a friendly conversation with the person being bullied or offering him or her a compliment.
“Instead of standing next to the bully and giving them power, walk toward the victim,” said Borba. “You don’t even have to say anything, Just take the focus and power away from the bully by showing the victim support.”
In the aftermath of an incident, kids can approach the victim and say things like, “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” “That happened me too,” “You didn’t deserve that” or “Do you need help?”
“Brainstorm empathetic responses with your child. Even if it’s after the fact, it’s never too late.”
– Michele Borba, educational psychologist
Another tactic is to create a distraction that removes focus from the bully. Borba shared an example of a child who dramatically dropped his backpack so that his books spilled out and he needed help from the people who had been watching the bullying incident.
If the bullying comes in the form of people excluding someone from a group, kids can be upstanders by inviting that child to sit with them. Even cyberbullying typically has an in-person component.
“There are so many things kids can do,” said Borba. “Brainstorm empathetic responses with your child. Even if it’s after the fact, it’s never too late.”
Teach Them To Ask For Help
“Tell kids not to be afraid to ask for help when they need it! Many times, upstanders can achieve a better outcome by calling on a friend or adult who’s likely to be sympathetic to what they’re trying to do,” said Svoboda.
It’s important for kids to have trusted adults in mind that they can reach out to for help. “Help your child identify teachers and other adults at school they can go to if they see bullying,” said Borba. “Many schools also have anonymous reporting options or bullying complaint boxes online or in person. Go through these resources with your child.”
Borba recommended children’s books like “Say Something” by Peter H. Reynolds, “Fat, Fat Rose Marie” by Lisa Passen, “Bullies Are a Pain in the Brain” by Trevor Romain, and works by Trudy Ludwig like “The Invisible Boy” and “My Secret Bully.”
“Read these books with your child as you have these discussions,” said Borba. She also advised parents to read her book “UnSelfie” ― particularly Chapter 8, which focuses on building courage in kids and raising upstanders.
Model It Yourself
As with many lessons for children, parents can talk the talk, but they also need to walk the walk.
“Kids learn best by not our lectures but our showing it,” said Borba. “When they hear you saying to another parent, ‘That wasn’t nice’ ― even if it’s not bullying ― they begin to realize you can stand up for others.”
Ultimately, there are many ways to teach kids to be upstanders, and these lessons pay off.
“When children learn to stand up for each other they gain the confidence to stand up for themselves,” said Hansen.
“When kids learn to be upstanders instead of bystanders, they learn to attempt to solve a problem, not just tolerate the circumstance. When kids learn to make a plan to initiate a change when they observe bullying, they are practicing problem-focused coping,” said Goyette. “It’s critical that we teach children how to navigate complex social and emotional environments. Students learn better when they are in a safe, supportive environment.”
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