How to Protect Your Kids from Peer Cruelty

Parents can protect their children from being the victims of peer cruelty, say those who’ve studied children’s social interactions. But protection rarely means fighting kids’ battles for them. Here are some ways adults can help children tolerate the teasing and tormenting that many will experience to some degree during their school years:

  • Encourage friendships. Psychologist and author Michael Thompson, Ph.D., reports that “85 percent of kids are OK, able to tolerate social cruelty, because they have friends.” He finds they get picked on less and bounce back more easily.

    Thompson expresses greater concern for the vulnerability of kids without friends. He recommends that parents help facilitate friendships among children without orchestrating kids’ friendships for them. Don’t control, but do create opportunities where friendships can occur. Open your home to your kids’ friends. Make time to transport kids to social events. Help arrange play dates for kids too young to do so on their own.

  • Validate a child’s experience, emphasizes psychologist Robert Brooks, Ph.D., an expert on children’s resilience. Experts find that responses like “Just be more thick-skinned” or “This happens to everyone,” when a child is upset at being teased, can leave him or her feeling unsupported. Brooks recommends letting kids know you hear their hurt with comments like, “Anyone would be upset if they’re being teased.”

  • Empower your child to solve problems. “Help your child to be an active participant (in finding a solution),”  Brooks urges. Ask the teased child, “What do you think would be helpful?” Provide options if needed, such as ignoring the offending child or making light of the comments if it’s an infrequent occurrence. Then, when necessary, assist in shaping the child’s response into a realistic plan. Brooks finds that this improves a child’s sense of control and dignity.

  • Teach children to talk directly to one another, not about one another, advises Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out. These aren’t skills well practiced, she finds. As a result problems intensify. Direct communication fosters resolutions.

  • Provide kids with an alternative environment. Consider church or temple youth groups, scouts, summer camp or a new sport or activity outside the social circle where persistent teasing takes place. “It’s hard for kids to understand that it will end,” Simmons says. “It’s important to have a place where they’re not feeling those feelings.” She recalls the emotional pain she endured in her own youth, “I didn’t feel that way when I was playing basketball.”

  • Use therapists as a resource, not just in a crisis. “Counseling is an underrated and underused resource,” says Simmons, “especially with a child who isn’t going to talk to you.” She recommends counseling to help kids who are making poor social decisions, who have very low self-esteem, and who seem to be unhappy. “Therapy gave me all the wisdom I have to write this book,” says this childhood victim and perpetrator of bullying, now a best-selling author.

Return to When Kids Are Unkind: Understanding Social Cruelty Among Children.