When Boys are Bullies and Girls Are Mean

If your child is the giver or receiver of unkind behavior, read on.

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A girl experiencing bullying at school

Cheryl's 10-year-old son came home from school in tears, saying, "Why did you have to adopt me anyway?" After some gentle questioning, she learned that some boys had pushed him in the schoolyard, saying that adopted kids weren't allowed to play kickball.

Bullying, teasing, and exclusion are among the worst experiences of childhood, and may be especially painful for adopted children. Some kids may be acutely aware of the different way their family was formed and feel that they themselves are somehow different. When targeted directly, as Cheryl's son was, the hurt can run deep.

Why do kids tease and bully, and form cliques or gangs? Simply put, when kids don't feel a strong sense of family unity and/or when their self-esteem is shaky, they look for places where they can belong. In a clique or gang, they can feel accepted, and even loved, by their peers. And they exclude others to make themselves feel superior.

A child who feels different and yearns for acceptance may find himself on either side of the situation. He may be the subject of a group's scorn, or he may strive for inclusion to be like his peers. Either side is troublesome.

So what can be done? I believe the solution lies with not only the child, but also his parents and the community–in this case, the school.

What Children Should Do

A child who is the victim of such behavior should be empowered to handle his own problems. You can contribute to the development of your child's conflict-resolution skills by asking him: "How did you handle that?" or "What do you think you might be able to do about that?" and discuss his answers to these questions. Your goal is to help your child handle the problem himself rather than by simply taking adult advice. A child will have more confidence in himself and be stronger in the future if he is empowered to stand up to others.

What Parents Should Do

When children are taught tolerance, they are less likely to tease others. Parents who show acceptance of differences have children who are less likely to tease. It's important to build your child's self-esteem by treating him with respect and accepting his strengths and his weaknesses. When you hold family meetings, create rituals and traditions, and make family time a top priority, you diminish the likelihood of teasing.

It's also imperative not to overprotect your child by doing things for him that he could do for himself (including solving problems). This is asking a lot of parents who struggled to build a family or those who worry that their child will grow up feeling different. Remember, though, that overprotection is not in your child's interest. His confidence diminishes each time you do something for him that he could do for himself.

What the School Should Do

If a child is teasing or being teased, parents should seek the support of the community in which this happens. This will most likely be your child's school. Schools can handle the problem by educating the children–for example, instituting a conflict-resolution and community building program–and by enacting and enforcing a series of tiered consequences.

If a child teases or bullies others, the first consequence might be that the child is asked to write a note of apology. The second tier of consequences may involve his being called in for a conference with an authority figure, such as a principal, to discuss what happened. The third tier may be that his parents are called in, and so on.

Of course, we need not expect that children will be bullied or will tease others simply because they were adopted. Children everywhere have this unfortunate experience at some point in their lifetimes. Perhaps, though, we can use these instances as opportunities for learning–about our children, our community, and ourselves.

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Self-Esteem Boosters

To help your child stand up to peer abuse or quit being the abuser, build his confidence by acting in respectful ways towards him, even if youre angry.
  • Use I statements rather than you statements. Say Im uncomfortable with this mess, please clean it up, rather than You made a big mess again. Cant you pick up?
  • Avoid labels. Do not say Youre such a slob. Say instead what action youd like the child to take: Id like you to log off the Internet and clean up now, please.
  • Watch your vocal tone. A tone that conveys disgust, annoyance, and other negative feelings can send the message that he isnt a worthwhile human being.
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