by Karen Blandino
Whether our children are starting kindergarten, middle school, high school or moving on to college, every parent shares a common wish: that our child is able to cultivate healthy relationships without becoming a victim to a “mean girl” or bullying situation. The question is, how do we help our kids develop the skills to avoid bullying relationships in a post-pandemic world? Even more, how do we equip our kids with vital relational skills when they’re submerged in an environment that’s inundated with technology, social media, anxiety, depression, and mental health issues?
Believe it or not, developing healthy relationships and preventing and protecting oneself from bullies comes down to three core skills: the ability to be kind, establish boundaries, and develop communication skills. These three timeless skills are staples in relational health, and they are the keys for students to successfully navigate the world of social media, frenemies, and friendships.
As a parent, we often wonder where to start when it comes to teaching are precious ones about healthy relationships. It begins by modeling kindness in our own circle of relationships, whether it’s with our spouse, friends, teachers, service workers (you get the picture). Your child is watching you, and they will repeat your behavior, whether good or bad. The words you speak are powerful, and they have the ability to build others up or tear them down.
When our children are little, speaking encouragement to them is a bit easier, but as they age, we fear they’ll just roll their eyes and walk away. When my daughter was a senior in high school, I would give her a “senior hug” every day. It was my way of telling her, “I love you,” and “I want to cherish this special year with you.” Yes, many times she rolled her eyes (especially when it was just me doing all the hugging), but a few years later I overheard her sharing this memory with some friends as she described how much it meant to her. She may have rolled her eyes, but she was also watching and listening to how I treated her. It’s often these small gestures that make the biggest difference in teaching our children how to treat others.
Of course, treating people with kindness will also be tested, particularly when the other person’s words or behavior are hurtful. Our human nature would like to lash out and protect ourselves, but the best approach is to try to deescalate the situation with kindness. While this isn’t easy, it shows our kids the mature way to handle these difficult moments.
One final point on kindness to keep in mind is that bullying and meanness is often the result of an unmet need in the other person’s life—such as the lack of support from a parent, the lack of food or shelter, or fear that’s induced by circumstances out of their control. As parents, we have the opportunity to teach our children to look past the words and bad behavior, and to see the brokenness in the other person. Doing so makes responding with kindness much easier. Plus, it helps our kids see kindness as a way to help heal the hidden wounds.
The topic of boundaries is very popular in our culture today, but it’s not limited to one area of life. You can set boundaries in at least three areas: physically, verbally, and mentally.
Physical Boundaries — When a child is learning about their body, parents can start teaching the importance of physical boundaries by using the “No-No Square.” Simply draw a large square—from the chin to the knees—and explain to your child that no one should ever touch them inside the square, except maybe a doctor during an exam. There are a lot of variations of this teaching online (some are good and others are a bit cheesy), but it’s an easy concept for most littles to understand early in their development.
As our children age, the physical boundary will evolve from not only protecting themselves but also respecting others when they say no. Whether it’s a parent saying no to a new toy, a friend saying no to a game on the playground, or a boyfriend/girlfriend saying no to sexual advances, healthy children must learn to accept “no” as an answer in life. Throughout my counseling career, I’ve observed that the students that have the most difficulty with authority—whether teachers or other adults—often lack the vocabulary and skills to accept the word “No.” Here is a simple BoysTown tool to help:
1. When you hear the word no, your response should be “okay.”
2. After a few moments, you are welcome to respectably ask for clarification if you do not understand.
3. If you disagree, you can bring it up later so long as you speak about it respectively.
This is a great tool to teach your child healthy relationship communication boundaries. Another great teaching tool is the “No Means No” resource. It helps educate children on dating violence, how to protect oneself in an assault situation, and how to intervene if you witness violence.
Verbal boundaries — As a school counselor, one issue I’ve seen many students deal with is how their friends speak to them (whether verbally, messaging, or texting). In many cases, it’s often cruel and targets a person’s insecurities related to their hair, weight, ethnicity, or clothes. Let me tell you, it is not for the faint of heart to read these messages. The question I always get is, “What do I say back” or “What do I do now?” The simplest response is to block the person or find new friends. In some cases, the best approach is to limit the other person’s access to you for your own protection. In other cases, it might be more helpful to respond firmly and respectfully in a way that sets a clear boundary. The goal is to communicate to the person what you will (and will not) accept from them verbally in order to maintain a friendship. Some examples might sound like this:
1. “I am not sure what gave you the idea that I was ok with anyone making fun of ____________.”
2. “That is not helpful.”
Often verbal abusers are not prepared for a perceived victim to know how to defend themselves. Their power usually stems from verbally dominating the conversation. Therefore, when a student can shut down the verbal abuse, set up a clear boundary, and still maintain a connection, it can result in a power shift in the relationship.
Mental boundaries — Social media has taken growing up to a whole new level. Although there are great benefits to social media, (such as accessing long distance relationships or discovering helpful information), learning how to balance social media time can be challenging. Many students start and end each day by looking at their favorite social media accounts, wondering about everything that everyone else has, where they went, what they wore, and who is richer, faster, and smarter. Kids often find themselves in the comparison game, scrolling social media to see everyone’s perceived successes. According to research, without social media boundaries, young people are more likely to see increased levels of depression and loneliness.
Here are a few social media boundaries that could help your young person and minimize the chances of becoming a victim to cyber bullying. First, I would encourage parents to watch Netflix’s Social Dilemma. It’s enlightening and will provide greater perspective on the seriousness of this issue. Second, manage your child’s screen time and model the way by putting your own phone away during meal times and other special times with your child. Third, teach your children not to engage in negativity, and encourage them to use the un-follow option if needed for a season. Finally, create a common area in your home where everybody puts their phone at night. This is very beneficial in helping your child complete homework, as well as sleep without distractions and disruptions.
If you see that your child is developing (or has developed) a social media addiction, consider seeking outside treatment from a counselor. The symptoms of social media addiction may include checking social media accounts more than 100 times a day, loss of friendships, lack of ability to socially engage, or needing the stimulation of social media interaction to feel good about one’s self.
Healthy communication skills are vital in establishing connections and dealing with disagreements or arguments. These skills can start very early in life. For example, with a toddler, it may be teaching them to “use your words,” instead of screaming or crying for something. Funny thing, even as your child ages, teaching them to “use your words” is still needed. Many young people lean into using targeted profanity, silent treatments, physical aggression, and unregulated outbursts as their go-to communication styles. Unfortunately this leads to more dysfunctional issues such as abuse and bullying. When a person can understand the benefit of healthy communication, their stress levels go down, and they can control their emotions, listen better, understand non-verbal cues, and engage in appropriate dialogs with almost anyone.
What to do if my child is the bully or mean girl?
As a parent, a blind spot can be not acknowledging our child’s bad behavior. When my daughter was in 4th grade, she and a few other girls wrote “butt-head” on another student’s autograph t-shirt. I was heart-broken when the principal shared with me what happened, and I was saddened to see the hurt on the mother’s face. It would have been easy to write it off as “a joke” or “kids having fun,” but I knew this was an opportunity for a great lesson. I had my daughter write a letter to the student, the mother, the teacher, and the principal. In her letter, she owned up to her behavior, apologized for her behavior, and shared what she would do better in the future. She also had to do extra chores to earn money to pay back the cost of the shirt. And she had to forgo a class field trip. I know this may seem a bit over the top, but dealing with bullying behavior quickly and firmly in the beginning can diminish repeated escalated behaviors.
Some simple tips for dealing with bullying behavior is to always set clear boundaries on what is, and what is not, acceptable behavior. Help your children learn how to make amends and apologize for bad behaviors. Be consistent with consequences for behaviors that are not in line with good values.
If we want the best for our children as they grow into adults, teaching them the importance of kindness, developing clear boundaries, and cultivating the ability to communicate effectively is critical. Not only will it make a difference today, but it will help alleviate many of the issues that prevent adults from developing healthy relationships and succeeding in the work force.
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Karen Blandino is a pastor’s wife, Licensed Professional Counselor Associate (LPC-A) and Professional School Counselor. She holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Texas Christian University and a Bachelor of Arts in History from University of Texas in Arlington. She has served 18 years in education and is currently. She and her husband, Stephen Blandino, planted 7 City Church in the cultural arts district of Ft. Worth, Texas where they serve as lead pastors. www.karenblandino.com