Before you rescue your child from a mean kid, consider letting them be their own hero

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Before you rescue your child from a mean kid, consider letting them be their own hero

It’s a tough world out there. As parents, it's our job to protect our kids as well as prepare them to deal with life's struggles on their own.

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Set up a "gratitude circle" every night at dinner. Go around the table and take turns talking about the various people who were generous and kind to each of you that day. It may sound corny, but it makes everyone feel good.

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  • Parenting
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Eva Dwight, BA, MEd, ACC, CPDT, Contributor Published 6:00 a.m. ET Dec. 13, 2018
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It’s a tough world out there. When a child has been the target of unkind words or behavior, it’s easy for parents to jump straight into protective mode. It's easy to take it upon ourselves to be their knight in shining armor, charging in to rescue them from the horrible person who hurt their feelings. It's easy to label other kids as bullies.

This is actually the last thing we should be doing , for two important reasons:

  1. When we rush in to fix the situation, the implicit message we send to our children is, “I don’t think you can handle this.”
  2. As soon as we classify another child’s behavior as “bullying,” we automatically place our child in the role of “victim.” When kids see themselves as victims they’re likely to also see themselves as “powerless.”

Children who believe they’re powerless open themselves up to more victimization, so the most important thing we can do is teach them how to rescue themselves. Here's one way parents can do just that:

First, define what happened

Was this actual bullying?

Bullying is marked by aggressive behavior that’s targeted at a specific person for the purpose of causing physical or emotional harm. The behavior may be repeated, and there’s at least the perception of an imbalance of power between the bully and the target.

Remember that discipline is not punishment. Enforcing limits is really about teaching kids how to behave in the world and helping them to become competent, caring, and in control.

Or was this a mean moment?

Bullying is always mean, but not all meanness is bullying. Sometimes, just like adults, kids have a bad day and lash out. Whatever happened hurt your child’s feelings, but if mean behavior from that particular child is not a regular occurrence, then it might have been just a mean moment. Determining whether the problem was bullying or a bad moment will impact on the strategy your child uses to resolve the problem.

Find out if this is a conflict in which your child played a role.

Are you only getting half the story? This isn’t to say that your child is lying. They may have unknowingly offended the other person, so from their perspective, the mean behavior appears to be “for no reason.” A little investigating is warranted before deciding how to proceed.

Next, create an action plan

Help your child brainstorm strategies on how to move forward. Make sure the plan puts them in the driver’s seat. Encourage them to include confident thoughts to go along with their courageous actions:

  • Next time I see this person, I’ll remind myself that their problem is their stuff, not mine.
  • If this person says something mean to me again, I can say, “I’m not sure why you would say that. Did I do something to make you mad?” I’ll take a deep breath and remind myself to stay calm.

Role play the action plan a few times.

Practicing in a calm environment can help your child grow confidence in their ability to follow through in the more stressful, real-life situation.

Katie Holmes (mom to daughter Suri): “I’ve never met a 2-year-old who is terrible. I’m so cool with every stage my daughter goes through. I just think she’s amazing. I hope she’s not looking at me thinking, Mom, are the terrible 30s coming on with you?”

Report the incident, if necessary.

If the problem warrants adult intervention, support your child in bringing it up to a teacher or appropriate authority. Keep your child in the driver’s seat. Help them prepare what to say and write down questions they have. Then, when the time comes, allow them to do most of the talking while you provide moral support.

Focus on skill development

It would be nice if we could reassure our kids that, once they turn 21, mean behavior stops and adults are always kind and respectful to each other. But let’s face it: human beings of all ages can be mean. Successfully navigating the challenges of social interaction requires using a whole boatload of skills, including emotional regulation, conflict resolution and respectful communication.

When we don’t have those skills — or when we forget to use them — we resort to behaviors that drive a wedge between us and our fellow human beings: gossip, criticism, name calling and fighting. These hurtful behaviors are not relegated to the world of children, so the sooner kids start learning how to respond to them, the more likely they are to emerge from social storms with confidence and self-esteem.

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"Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience." - Ludwig van Beethoven