A Frenemy or Bullying? Helping Kids Understand The Difference

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It's National Anti-Bullying Month and we've got a series to help kids young and old (and their parents) with understanding when frenemies have crossed the line into bullying.

It’s National Anti-Bullying Month and we’ve got a series to help kids young and old (and their parents) with understanding when frenemies have crossed the line into bullying.

Helping Your Child Understand

Bullying vs. Friendship

For Young Ones Especially

“Mommy, so friends are nice one minute, and then mean the next one? Is that how it works?” My young four-year-old son asked me, watery eyes intensely looking for answers.

I was so caught off-guard by his question, several years back, but his look is seared in my memory. It took months to understand that the mean child had formed a little “gang” of sorts, taunting him about everything from his sandwiches to his fun new light-up shoes. He stopped eating well and had dark circles under his eyes. When the child at school came in with black eyes from fighting, I knew something was really wrong. Then my son, disturbed by nightmares, was sleeping and I heard him screaming out loud, “No, No!!!” We tried waking him but all he did was sleep and sob in our arms. This wasn’t any normal disagreement, this was endangering his sense of well being.

It can be hard to teach very young children what’s acceptable when all they’ve known at home is being loved and nurtured.

Once we understood the extent of the bullying we took steps to help, and I’ve outlined some basics we learned the hard way. Since meeting other parents of verbally bullied children, I’ve often heard this question about friendship. We all want our kids to have close friends that influence them for good and share memories. And it’s wonderful if their family is fun to spend time with. But how do you teach your kids to look at friendship during key phases of growth? And how to you help them not be affected by others’ poor behavior?

In honor of National Anti-Bullying Month, this is the first article in a series to help you prepare your kids to deal with bullies, and what to look for in a healthy friendship.

Correctly diagnose what’s happening

Depending on your child’s age, symptoms of more serious bullying can often be misunderstood. For young ones, it’s important to know that mood swings, stomach problems, and sleep patters can all offer signs that something’s off. If they love peanut butter one week and suddenly stop, or won’t wear certain clothes any more, ask why. It may take a while to draw your kids out.

Reinforce good messages and replace bad ones

Let’s just assume that whether it’s a bully or a contentious person, your little one needs assurance before heading out. Like checking your tanks before underwater diving classes, making sure your kid’s “love tank” gets filled at home is very important. One of my sons and I even made an imaginary gauge to tell one another if we need another hug. Loving gestures are important to building us all up each day, and a few hand signals makes it easier.

Understand the intensity of the problem

Perhaps you’ve started to see something’s off, and the teacher is either telling you or trying to avoid the problem. But now it’s affecting grades, and other areas of life. Trust your instincts. You’ve raised your child, you’ve known him longer than others. The real trick is to develop questions to draw them out, especially if they are young like my son was only five years old. He’d never had to develop that kind of vocabulary before. We all learned together.

Together we all developed a vocabulary for how to gauge difficult situations and see if it was just an off day, or truly threatening situation that required action.

Try working with resources

Many schools offer great training for kids, parents, and teachers. Get involved and see what their stance is. Is there something you can participate in with your child to see how they react? Are there outside classes in your community at the Boys and Girls club or other locations? If your school has a sweep-it-under-the-carpet reaction, keep a close eye on what’s happening with your little one. Each school is different. If they have a transparent way of appealing up the chain with a concern that’s super. If they make decisions without your input, that’s a huge red flag. A good test of health with schools is if they are open to your suggestions or don’t accept any at all. Open is always good.

With schools, open is always good with bullying policies.

Remove them from harm

If your child is threatened physically or the teachers have a non-adaptive attitude that excludes healthy learning and provides preferential treatment to certain families, it might be time to ask if there are other options in your community. Once kids came to school with black eyes, and my son had stomach problems, and also was screaming in his sleep, we knew it was high time for a huge change.

Does your child feel threatened? Might be time to investigate and understand your options.

Think out of the box

A friend whose son had a similar situation, encouraged us to research Karate and self-defense classes in our area. We invited a larger group of friends, too. Our favorite was a class at the local YMCA combining Karate, Taekwondo, and anti-bully training. It was excellent and the coach took time to give a lot of “what-ifs” so the kids wouldn’t be frozen in place when someone tried to push them around with harsh words or actions. Together we all developed a vocabulary for how to gauge difficult situations and see if it was just an off day, or truly threating situation that required action.

Hope these tips are helpful for your family. I’d love to hear your ideas, too.


Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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