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Strong friendships help deter bullies

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By Beth J. Harpaz
Associated Press
Teaching kids to become "bullyproof" is all the rage. Books, videos and websites promise to show parents how to protect their kids from being bullied.
School districts are buying curricula with names like "Bully-Proofing Your School," a well-regarded program used in thousands of classrooms.
Even martial arts programs are getting into the act: "Bullyproofing the world, one child at a time," is the motto for a jujitsu program called Gracie Bullyproof.
But can you really make a child invulnerable to getting picked on? And even if you could, should the burden really be on potential victims to learn these skills, rather than on punishing or reforming the bullies?
Bullyproofing is not just about getting bullies to move on to a different target. It's also about creating a culture of kindness, beginning in preschool, and encouraging kids to develop strong friendships that can prevent the social isolation sometimes caused by extreme bullying.
Bullies "sniff out kids who lack connections or who are isolated because of depression, mental health issues, disabilities or differences in size and shape," said Malcolm Smith, a family education and policy specialist at the University of New Hampshire who has been researching peer victimization for more than 30 years.
"The best thing a parent can do from a very young age, starting in preschool, is ask, 'Who's got your back? When you're on the bus, when you're in the hall, who's got your back?' If they can't name someone, you should help them establish connections to their peers."
Psychologist Joel Haber, a consultant on the recent documentary "Bully," says kids should also have "backup friends" outside school through sports, hobbies, summer camp or religious groups.
Haber says "most kids can learn skills to make themselves less likely to have the big reactions" that feed bullies.
"Let's say you're one of those kids who, when I make fun of your clothes, you get really angry and dramatic. If I taught you in a role-play situation as a parent or a therapist to react differently, even if you felt upset inside, you would get a totally different reaction from the bully. And if you saw that kids wouldn't tease you, your confidence would go up," Haber said.
One way parents can help is to normalize conversations about school social life so that kids are comfortable talking about it. Don't just ask "How was school today?" Ask, "Who'd you have lunch with, who'd you sit with, who'd you play with, what happens on the bus, do you ever notice kids getting teased or picked on or excluded?" advises Haber, who offers other bullyproofing tips and resources at and is co-authored of a new book called "The Resilience Formula."
Bullies "feed on the body language of fear. It's a physical reaction -- how the victim responds, how they hold their head and shoulders, the tone of voice," said Jim Bisenius, a therapist who has taught his "Bully-Proofing Youth" program in more than 400 schools in Ohio and elsewhere.
The classic bully profile is a child who was neglected, abused, or raised in an authoritarian home. But lack of discipline is just as bad: Children who have no boundaries, who feel entitled to whatever they want, can also become bullies.
Smith says schools and parents must create a culture where meanness is not tolerated. "Kindness, empathy, caring and giving; you can teach those things."
Haber says parents and schools can start in preschool years by discouraging hitting, pushing and teasing: "Ask, how would you feel if someone did that to you?"
Experts are hopeful about this new generation of bullyproofing programs, which teach social and emotional skills while promoting a caring school culture.
Susan Swearer Napolitano, a Nebraska-based psychologist and co-director of the Bullying Research Network, who recommends a half-dozen bullyproofing programs on her website, says "Ultimately it's about people treating each other with kindness and respect that will stop bullying."
Story tags » Parenting

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