It has only been three years since the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education released the first formal, federal definition of bullying, but in that brief period the issue has risen to the national spotlight. From Netflix originals to front page news, bullying is a hot topic, and with good reason.

Bullying can lead to long-term emotional damage, including anxiety, depression, and even self-harm.

Although it now receives more attention than it did previously, bullying, overall, is actually on the decline in the United States. It reached its peak in 2005, when 28% of students reported being a victim of bullying. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 20% of students were victims of bullying in 2016.

Why is the rate of bullying on the decline?

 

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This gradual improvement is likely the result of broad intervention programs applied widely over the past decade. Harvard’s 2012 overview of bullying prevention programs in schools applauded the effectiveness of social-emotional learning programs and programs aimed specifically at training students to recognize, report, and effectively deal with bullying incidents.

Victims of bullying can’t stop the pattern themselves. A 2010 survey of more than 11,000 students nationwide revealed that most self-advocacy responses to bullying were actually not very effective. For example, bullying victims who fought back or told their aggressors to stop reported that doing so made their situation worse nearly half of the time.

Conversely, victims reported that telling a parent, teacher, or friend about the incident was the approach most likely to make things better. The same survey revealed that victims of bullying say the single most helpful intervention is peer action.

How can we encourage our children to be the ones who take this peer action upon themselves? How do we teach them to stand up for others? How do we raise children who are activists instead of simply bystanders?

A new study indicates that it’s much easier than you might think.

Many past studies have focused on how victims can most effectively respond to bullies, and many others have focused on how bullies can be reformed. Few studies, however, have focused specifically on how bystanders can be taught to take action on behalf of their peers. A recent study published in the March 2017 issue of the “Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology” focused on how parental action can impact a child’s bystander behaviors.

This study investigated the impact that advice from parents and other caregivers had on the behavior of fourth and fifth grade students in 74 different classrooms. As it turns out, our children are actually listening to us.

Students whose parents or caregivers told them to stand up for others were significantly more likely to intervene when a peer was bullied than students whose parents or caregivers told them to mind their own business or not seek help from a grown up. Even more intriguing, students whose parents advised them not to intervene when a peer is being bullied were significantly more likely to join in on the bullying themselves.

What does this mean for parents?

For starters, it reaffirms that parents play a crucial role in a child’s decision-making. Even though we often think that they’re not paying attention to us, our children absorb what we’re saying, at least when it comes to bullying.

The most effective style of advice was direct, clear, and straightforward. This means that giving our children the precise words they need to intervene is most helpful.

Some examples of parental advice that reinforced anti-bullying attitudes, empathy, and intervention include:

  • “Kids shouldn’t bully each other like that.”
  • “That kind of behavior is not okay.”
  • “How do you think this situation makes her feel?”
  • “You need to tell the bully to stop.”
  • “You need to try to help the victim feel better.”
  • “Tell the victim that the bully shouldn’t have done that.”
  • “Go tell an adult what is happening.”

The single most effective tool for empowering our children to stand up to bullies is telling them clearly and directly to do so. There are many other ways to help them prepare for bullying situations so that they can keep themselves and others safe. Here are some of our favorites:

Emphasize the difference between tattling and reporting

The goal of tattling is to get someone into trouble. The goal of reporting is to get someone out of trouble. If your child thinks someone could be in trouble, either physically or emotionally, he or she needs to report the situation to an adult right away.

Consume media with your kids, and use it to spark conversations

It’s tempting to use the TV as a babysitter when there’s work to do around the house, but make a point to sit down with your kids every once in a while and watch with them the shows they like. Use it as a teachable moment by casually pointing out situations that could be construed as bullying.

Try to keep the conversation light as you ask what they think the characters should do to help. Then, ask what they would do too. Use this as a conversation starter to discuss different forms of bullying and how to recognize bullying when it happens. Remind your kids that they have the power to stand up to bullies.

Role play with younger children

For younger children, or those who are less self-assured, it helps to practice the exact words that they can use to stand up to a bully. If your child is uncomfortable roleplaying with you, you can use dolls or stuffed animals to act out bully scenarios. Use the direct phrases above to shape bystander intervention. Practice until your child can use the words independently in a strong, loud voice, then give plenty of praise.

Turn to the ‘net

There are tons of anti-bullying programs and videos available online. One that your kids might appreciate is the Cartoon Network’s Stop Bullying Speak Up Campaign. Here, your child can join over one million others in taking a pledge to stand up against bullying. A tip sheet and a series of fun, educational videos geared towards bystander empowerment are also provided.  

If we want bullying to continue its decline, we need to raise kids who are willing to stand against it. When parents give their children the tools they need to intervene in a bullying situation, they are more likely to be the peer advocates that their classmates need.