Picture this: Your eight-year-old son, just home from another day of higher learning, bursts through the door and makes a break for his room. As he sprints up the stairs, you spy a torn shirt and black eye, but when you try to find out what happened he clams up. "This is exactly the type of behaviour you'd expect from a child being bullied," says Constable Scott Mills of Toronto's 14th Division, a Secondary School Watch Officer for nine downtown schools and over 7,000 students. "It can be hard for a kid to deal with, period, so oftentimes the last thing they want to do is talk about it."
Open the lines of communication
But experts say talking makes the biggest difference -- it's just getting started that can be tricky. School psychologist Izzy Kalman advises opening the lines of communication any way you can. Begin with open-ended questions such as "How are kids treating you in school?" or "How is the walk/ride to and from school?" You may not get a response (honest or otherwise) during the first few tries, but don't give up. Keep this in mind -- some kids don't like to talk to their parents about their personal lives, so rather than pushing a child who doesn't feel comfortable spilling the beans, consider involving a teacher, police officer or youth worker they trust. "Trust is extremely important because kids will only open up when they don't feel threatened," says Mills.
Just be choosy about who gets involved, advises Kalman, who believes that adult intervention can sometimes do more harm than good. "We all want to protect our children, but in going after a bully, we become bullies ourselves. And so the cycle continues."
Face the problem head on
So what can we do to stop it? While specific approaches vary, most experts agree that the solution is facing the problem head on. For Kalman, changing the victim's outlook on the situation is key. "A kid may get upset because he's getting picked on, but getting angry just compounds the problem. The more upset he gets, the more bullying continues." The sooner it stops affecting him, he says, the sooner the harassment stops, because the bully's power has been taken away. (Check out Kalman's website at www.bullies2buddies.com for more information on his approach.)
Page 1 of 2 -- When does schoolyard tension merit police involvement? Find out on page 2.
For Mills, putting power into students' hands works best. "As officers, we're there to help however we can and to provide materials and resources," he says, "but we're also hoping to help kids deal with these issues individually and as a student body." Case in point: Empowered Student Partnerships (ESP). In this program, a ballot box is set up so kids can anonymously drop off notes with their concerns on anything from bullying to gang violence, and the members of ESP and the student council meet to discuss and determine a plan of action.
Where officers will step in, Mills says, is when bullying becomes abuse and crosses the line. "Physical incidents and bodily contact warrant police action and in some cases arrests," he says, adding that parents should call the police if they suspect their child is being hurt. "Even if all that comes from the call is your child opening up and starting to stop the bullying, it's more than worth it."
What to do when bullying leads to harassment or assault
Knowing when to report bullying can be difficult, but here are a few guidelines:
• if your child shows signs of physical abuse such as scratches, bruising, torn clothes, etc.;
• if your child is afraid to go to school or asks to switch schools;
• if other attempts at rectifying the situation haven't worked and the bullying is getting worse; and
• if there's a chance reporting the incident(s) will lessen the chance of it happening again.
Encourage your child to report bullying to people they trust -- whether that's you, a school teacher or youth worker, the police, or anonymously to Crime Stoppers at 222-TIPS. And if they don't feel comfortable talking about it, ask them to write their feelings down, along with what's happened, so you can use it as a reference in the future.
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