Kristal Leon should have been celebrating her daughter Priscilla Villareal’s newfound love for basketball.
Instead, she was forced to have a tough conversation with her then 7-year-old daughter, who wanted to quit the team because her peers called her legs chubby and fat.
“It broke my heart hearing that. It’s unfortunate to see how much words can have an effect on kids and how it can stay with them long after bullying has occurred,” says Leon, who still works with Priscilla, now 10, on depression and anxiety stemming from bullying.
Priscilla was one of the more than 160,000 children that wanted to stay home from school each day to avoid being bullied. Bullying can exist in many forms – verbal, physical, online. Bullies pick on kids for what they deem to be a vulnerability – their appearance, behavior, social status and everything in between.
Studies show that bullies behave the way they do mostly for attention, but why do some kids seem to attract bullies?
Red flags for bullies
Dr. Michele Borba, author of the bullying prevention book, End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy, says in general, bullies thrive on the power imbalance and attention they get from bullying. Because the goal of bullying is to elicit some sort of response (anger, sadness or fear) in their target, the behavior often continues and even escalates based on the victim’s reaction.
“Bullies are very selective on who they pick on because they get reinforcement from the kids that it works,” she says. “If we teach kids how to respond the correct way to bullies the first time, the behavior is almost never repeated.”
Borba says she encourages parents to work with children at an early age to be confident and assertive so when the time comes, they’re more likely to properly stand up to a bully.
This does not mean, however, the bullied child is ever to blame for the bullying.
A collaborative solution
Julie Hertzog, director of the PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, says although we’ve seen a societal shift that places more importance on bullying prevention awareness, most bullying won’t stop for good unless those in an authoritative position get involved.
“We encourage parents to avoid immediate overreacting and acting on instinct,” says Hertzog, whose organization provides free resources to begin these conversations with children.
While every situation is different, she says, a general rule of thumb is to involve educators, making it a collaborative relationship when possible.
“Your child’s teacher sees your child interact with peers,” Hertzog says. “They have some insights that you don’t get to see. From the very start, have a conversation about their social interaction, just like you’d do about their academics.”
Veronica Ursetto, owner and therapist at Integrative Perspectives Counseling and Consulting PC, suggests parents keep the lines of communications open with their children about school life so they will feel comfortable to approach you if bullying begins. But she, too, cautions parents to think before they react, or in many cases, over-react.
“Overacting and confronting the bully will perpetuate the cycle with the adult as the bully,” Ursetto says. “This also equals more shame for your child and with decreased future communications.”
Ursetto recommends giving your child some choice in how the situation is handled.