International Stand Up to Bullying Day: a good time to get kids talking, cuddling

Smiles and kids go together like sunshine and sparkle. That’s why hardly anything is more heartbreaking than watching a child lose his or her joy and turn inward. Other-kid meanness is one of the biggest causes. International Stand Up to Bullying Day is Feb. 23, and it is a mid-winter opportunity to open up dialogue, learn to recognize the signs of bullying, and take preventive action. Giving extra hugs—or a stuffed animal friend to be hugged—can help too!

Bullying casts a long, dark shadow. Let’s face it, many adults, who have come out the other side, can so vividly describe their own long-ago run-ins with bullies that the wounds seem fresh and raw. We also know that a day or week can feel like forever to a child; if that time is spent in torment, just imagine why despair can run so deeply. Trying to convince kids that “this too shall pass” or “just wait and see; things will change” can sound far-away and empty. After all, at age 10 a year is 10 percent of one’s entire lifetime, and a week can seem interminable

Kids also have little perspective or context for why others behave badly and tend to internalize meanness directed their way. Making it even more complicated, although we tend to think that kids who bully are “without”—without friends, a good home life, or positives in general—and are pushing others down as compensation, research reported in Time several years back suggests that sometimes fairly otherwise well-adjusted, popular kids engage in mean behaviors.

In late 2016, the Teaching Tolerance website, posted “Empathy: The Antidote to Bullying,” by Linea Gillen, a long-time school counselor. Addressing some of the factors that likely apply in most situations, she writes, “If we look into the heart of bullying, what we often find are deficits of emotional control and empathy. Somewhere, somehow, social and emotional skills have gone lacking.”

Sadly, bullying has become incredibly common. Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center website describes the organization as one that “actively leads social change, so that bullying is no longer considered an accepted rite of childhood passage.” In December they shared 2016 data from the National Center for Educational Statistics suggesting that more than 1 in 5 students report being bullied. Of those, “13% were made fun of, called names, or insulted; 12% were the subject of rumors; 5% were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; and 5% were excluded from activities on purpose.”

Bullying can be physical, verbal, or relational; the latter can involve friends purposely leaving other friends out of activities. It can also involve spreading gossip or rumors. The Girls Guide to End Bullying website shows video clip examples of relational bullying. Like Pacer’s, the American Psychological Association offers information and definitions of bullying, as well as suggestions as to what parents, teachers, and kids can do to prevent it.

The warning signs of bullying, according to the Stop website, can include unexplained injuries, lost or destroyed clothing or personal items, frequent headaches or stomachaches, changes in eating habits, and difficulty sleeping, declining grades, loss of friends and social situations, feelings of helpless or low self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors.

Empathy, or the ability to be aware of, sensitive to, and able to experience second-hand, the feelings of others, is an important quality to instill in kids to help ensure they don’t become bullies. In December 2016 Samantha Rodman, Ph.D., wrote “How to Teach Kids Empathy” for the HuffPost. The 6 excellent ways she suggests—and elaborates on in the article—are “teach them about emotions,” “read and watch TV together,” “after conflicts, discuss what everyone was feeling,” “let them see you resolve conflicts in your own life,” “speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,” and “model respect for those who seem different.”

To help teach respect for differences, the story A Different Tune, a Level 3 storybook from the 3-level Start to Read! series, is available in several print and digital formats. It features important ideas about being or feeling different, and teaches children that being different from everyone else can be a wonderful gift.

Another gift is the gift of time. Hunkering down with preschoolers and watching an episode of Charlie & Company—or the whole series—creates a safe, secure learning environment. Cuddling up with one or all three of the plush toy characters from the series, including Charlie the Golden Retriever, Socrates the Owl, and Levi Cottonwood the Beaver. Love on your kids, as they love on their furry friends!

Stand up to bullying with kindness and empathy; prepare kids for a world that can sometimes be mean, but where they can both be different and make a difference.