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Protect Your Kids from Bullies

Parents should be the first line of defense against bullying. Here's how to keep your children safe.

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

With headline-grabbing tragedies like the death of Phoebe Prince, bullying seems worse than ever—it's no wonder parents feel powerless. While 44 states have bullying statutes, the policies vary wildly in terms of definition, reporting requirements and enforcement, which means you can't rely on schools to police behaviors or be a safe haven, particularly when it comes to cyberbullying and off-school-grounds incidents. That's why parents must lay the groundwork at home by teaching kids to recognize and report bullying, and learn what they can do themselves to take control of the problem before it escalates.

Bullied kid
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William Duke

Don't wait until something is wrong to initiate a conversation about bullying, says Allan L. Beane, PhD, CEO of Bully Free Systems in Murray, Kentucky. Keep yourself in the loop by frequently asking questions like "How do kids treat each other at school?" or "What do students do when they see another kid being mean?" "What do you do?" Then casually dig a little deeper. "Is somebody bothering you online?" or "Have you ever read a mean comment on Facebook or received a text that upset you?"

If you sense a problem, tread lightly so your kid doesn't feel embarrassed or like she's being interrogated. Start the conversation when you're running errands, doing chores or in the car. Make it clear that she never has to deal with bullying alone and that telling an adult is not snitching, but rather doing what's right—whether she or someone else is the victim. Encouraging kids to speak up when they see other kids being bullied is one of the most effective ways to stop bullying in its tracks, says Beane.

Check Online

Cyberbullying in many ways isn't that different from traditional bullying, says Hemanshu (Hemu) Nigam, SafetyWeb.com adviser and co-chair of President Obama's Online Safety and Technology Working Group. "Kids are so connected to their peers through technology that what happens online is real life," says Nigam. But there are key distinctions between the two. In the digital age a kid can't just ditch his problems at school. Through cell phones, computers and social networking sites, the bullying may follow him home to his bedroom, says Nigam. Pay attention to your kid's demeanor after he spends time on the computer or texts his friends. If he seems sad or upset, ask him what's up.

Take Action

If your tween or teen says she can handle the bullying on her own, offer to wait a day or two before intervening, to see if the issue resolves itself. Make clear that it's out of concern for her well-being—not because you want to "fix things" for her. Regardless, take these steps.

Stop bullying
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William Duke

Warning Signs

By themselves, these problems may just be typical teen moodiness; several of them together could indicate your child is dealing with a bully.

Coping Strategies

While the problem is being resolved, help keep your kid out of harm's way by arming him with these tips from Allan Beane of Bully Free Systems, author of Protect Your Child from Bullying: Expert Advice to Help You Recognize, Prevent and Stop Bullying Before Your Child Gets Hurt (Jossey-Bass).

Is Your Kid a Bully?

While you may not know whether your child is harassing others, there are some personality traits to be on the lookout for:

If you suspect your child has been acting inappropriately, try to find out what may have triggered his behavior. Ask, "Is there something going on in your life that is making you be mean toward other kids?" Many times bullies are being mistreated themselves. Still, that's no excuse—and counseling may be required.

Momster Poll

If your kid has been a victim of bullying, was she picked on:

56% Face to face/in person

6% Via the Internet or text messages

16% Both

22% Neither (that I know of)

Does your kids' school have an official written policy that prohibits bullying and specifies consequences?

43% Yes. Everything is spelled out, and kids and parents are held accountable.

39% Yes, technically. But from what I can tell, it's rarely if ever enforced.

18% No. Or at least there's no policy that I've been made aware of.

Originally published in the October 17, 2010, issue of Family Circle magazine.