Dear Dr. Yael:
My husband and I are having a problem with our seven-year-old daughter. She is having difficulty with socializing and was bullied this past year by another girl. She is a very sweet girl, and it is hard for her to respond when someone is mean to her. I don’t know how to help her and it is breaking my heart to see her going more and more into a shell. I spoke to her teachers and they tried to be more on top of the situation, but I am concerned about this coming school year. My daughter is already starting to dread going back to school because she is nervous that the bullying will continue. What can we do to help her avoid another difficult year?
A Heartbroken Mother
Dear Heartbroken Mother:
It is very frustrating to watch a child being bullied and to not know what you can do to help. The most important thing to do is to empower your daughter and help build her confidence. This can be done in several ways.
Does your daughter have any other girlfriends that would help her stand up to this bully? Getting other girls to help your daughter may make her feel more confident (and less hurt) by the bullying girl. And the girl who is bullying her may be much less likely to continue the bullying if she sees that it will not be tolerated by others. Research has shown that the most effective way to stop bullying is to get the bystanders to become proactive. Even though the other kids who are standing around may not be outwardly contributing to the bullying, they are in essence contributing to it because they are not standing up for the victim, thus allowing the bullying to continue. Someone proactive will defend the victim and not let the bully get away with demeaning anyone or making anyone feel bad. If even just a few girls decide that they will not let bullying occur, they can make a huge difference. Remember that in numbers there is strength. While I am not advocating for the children in your daughter’s class be mean to the bully, they must be assertive and make it clear that bullying behavior will not be tolerated in their school.
It is imperative that you make every effort to raise your daughter’s confidence level so she can have the self-belief to answer the bully and not look hurt while doing so – a very challenging feat. It would be helpful to come up with some witty comebacks and then role-play. Once your daughter feels comfortable with various responses, she will be more likely to use them when needed. Practicing the situation beforehand will help her feel more secure and less scared. Make sure to distinguish between nasty and aggressive remarks on one hand and confident and assertive remarks on the other. While a mean remark may sting the bully and make your daughter feel better in the short term, it will not be effective in the long term – as no one truly feels better when he or she makes someone else feel bad.
There is a huge difference between standing up for oneself and retaliating against others. Retaliation will likely continue the negative cycle and may even get your daughter in trouble. Defending oneself is a sign of self-assertion and strength, not meanness. Appropriate comebacks to bullying include “I’m surprised that such a nice girl like you would speak that way” or “I’m really sorry you feel that way.”
It may also be beneficial to get your daughter involved in some kind of chesed project and/or extracurricular activity. When people give to others, they feel useful and better about themselves. Many young girls and boys assist Tomchei Shabbos and other tzedakah organizations.
Another idea is to have your daughter aid a mother with several young children. These are great ways to do something positive on behalf of the frum community while your daughter strives to raise her sense of self. Getting involved in a specialty class (e.g. art, gymnastics, or dance) will also help her succeed in other areas and improve her self-esteem. These classes can also be great places to make new friends who share similar interests. Any kind of active class will pump your daughter with adrenaline, making her consistently feel better.
Try to minimize criticizing your daughter while maximizing your compliments and words of positive reinforcement. Seek opportunities to praise her for things she accomplishes and for the way she acts. Point out her special qualities in meaningful and sincere ways. For example, instead of saying “great job,” say “I really liked how you handled yourself when your little brother hit you. I could tell that you were upset, but you controlled yourself and acted like a true bas Yisrael. You really are a special girl!” This demonstrates that you were paying attention to her actions, and your praise lets her know that what she did was exemplary. She is then able to internalize the praise because it is meaningful.
If none of these ideas help your daughter, please seek professional help in order to build your daughter’s confidence and give her tools to use in stressful social situations. Never forget that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!” Getting your daughter help now can save you from years of future therapy. Hatzlachah with your trying situation!
Note to parents whose children are bullying others: Get your children professional help to rectify their abusive behavior. Bullying is a serious problem for the victims and perpetrators alike. It is not something that children generally grow out of. Most children who bully feel insecure about themselves and in order to feel better feel the need to put others down. But in reality this creates a negative cycle that makes the bullies feel increasingly worse because being mean to others does not make them feel better about themselves.
Help them express what is bothering them so they can stop taking out their pain on other children. Now is the time to assets them in gaining more effective coping skills, thereby improving their middos. If they don’t change for the better at a young age, they may have difficulties in the future regarding issues like job security, getting married, and staying married.
Bullying is unacceptable and it’s easier for a bully to change his or her behavior at a young age. So please help your precious children learn to socialize appropriately. In the end they will be nicer to others – while feeling better about themselves.
Dr. Yael Respler