Part II: Bullying, Islam and Everything In-Between: Practical Tips
In Part One of this short series, we discussed the definition of, ways of identifying, and the effects of bullying. Here, we will move on to practical tips and possible solutions to assist our children and ourselves in coping with bullying.
Helping the Oppressor (Bully):
The Prophet Muhammad (sala Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam) taught us the importance of offering assistance to both those who are being oppressed and those who are the oppressors by ending the cycle of abuse. In the case of both the victims and the bullies, it is important to acknowledge that anger is a natural emotion and to help your child to use healthy ways to express this anger.
We often worry what we will do if our child is being bullied, but what about the cases when our child is the one doing the bullying? For bullies, help your child to feel empowered inside the home by giving him/her choices (i.e. “What do you want for dinner tonight?” “Let’s plan the annual family trip together.”). When a child feels empowered by the adults in her life, she won’t seek to overpower their peers through bullying and intimidation. Create a home environment of warmth, parental involvement and a genuine interest in what your child does and says. This makes a child feel important and less likely to seek empowerment through aggressive means.
Firm limits are imperative for objectionable behaviors; ensure that you are consistent in enforcing consequences for misbehavior. For example, if your child hits his brother often, set a limit: “If you choose to hit your brother, you choose not to play with the Playstation over the weekend. If you choose to play nicely with you brother, you choose to play with the Playstation over the weekend.” By phrasing the limit in this way, your child understands that he is in control of his actions and, therefore, the consequences.
Be sure to act as a positive role model for your child. If your child overhears you gossiping about a friend over the phone, she may take this as a green light to start cruel rumors about others in her class at school. If you physically punish your child for misbehavior, he may view physical harshness as the way to show his power over his classmates.
Teach your children how to express their emotions in non-physical and healthy ways; allow yourself to be a nonjudgmental, understanding presence in whom they can always confide. Encourage open communication to discuss emotions asking questions like, “Was there a time that you felt angry/ jealous/ competitive/ mean/ frustrated/etc.?” Help your child to own up to her feelings rather than bottling them up inside and suppressing them; emotions will come out one way or another so we need to try our best to equip our children with healthy methods of self-expression.
Helping the Oppressed (Victim of Bullying):
The best thing, by far, that you can do for a child who is being bullied is to be an active listener. It is amazing how healing a listening ear can be. Each day, ask how school went, hold your child when she cries, and talk things out. This might not seem like much but it is vital to the healing process.
Allow your home to be a refuge and a sanctuary for your children. Make it a place where they can be filled with love, support and a feeling of worth. Talk to siblings about what they can do to help. Your children might not know what to anticipate in their classrooms from day-to-day but they should be able to expect peace and calmness when they enter your home. Having a stable foundation to return to on a daily basis can mean the difference between a child being able to handle a bully versus feeling completely unequipped. Be sure to have a family dinner at least once a week; they provide an excellent time to talk together and encourage dialogue. I remember my mother insisting that everyone eat at the kitchen table every single day at 6pm. It made such a huge difference to know that I would have a venue to express myself each day.
Pay close attention to the way you react in front of your child when he speaks to you about being bullied. If you begin to weep uncontrollably, you have reversed roles and instead of comforting your child, you are the one who needs to be taken care of. This may even stop your child from confiding in you since he may worry that it is too overwhelming for you to bear. Simply respond in a loving way but don’t make your child’s battle into your battle; allow your child a sense of autonomy and empowerment by helping her to find ways to deal with it on her own. Here, role playing exercises can be very helpful. Engage with your child by pretending to be the bully and brainstorming responses together.
Enduring bullying is an incredibly humiliating experience for a child. She may be afraid that you will be disappointed, that you won’t understand her experiences, that you might worry too much, or even that you might side with the bully. It is imperative to show your child that you are nonjudgmental and to allow him/her to come to you with anything that happens at school. Ask questions that can lead your child to open up. Introducing these questions in the third person makes them less personal and may allow your child to feel better equipped to discuss them.
- When a boy wants to be mean, what does he do?
- When a girl wants to be mean, what does she do?
- Does the teacher notice? What does she do?
- Do people ever start rumors?
- Can friends be mean to each other? How?
Find out who is bullying your child, how long this has been going on, how the bullying manifests itself and whether the teacher knows this is happening. Come up with a plan with your child including strategies she can use.
- Move seat or switch classes. Even as far as switching schools. This might seem extreme but your child’s psychological and emotional health, as well as self-esteem are on the line.
- Stay with a friend or group of friends during recess, at the bus stop, in the cafeteria or wherever bullying is apt to happen.
- Bullying is no longer limited to face-to-face interactions. If cyberbullying is occurring, get off of Facebook and other social networks or at least block the people who are bullying you.
- Come up with a safety plan for your child. A good one can be found here: http://www.beatbullying.org/dox/help/safety-plans.html
Bullying can have a devastating effect on a child’s self-esteem, ability to trust others, and social skills. Here are some ways to counteract this negativity:
- Encourage your child to join groups/clubs/teams inside and outside of school. Make sure that these are places where contributions are valued and where other members are disconnected from the bullying she experiences in the classroom. Get your child a membership at a local YMCA, bring her to masjid activities, help her choose a hobby and connect with others with the same interest. This will give your child a support system and help her to understand that the bullying has nothing to do with them since she will see that others accept her just as she is.
- Get therapy for your child if you notice he is becoming overwhelmed with what is happening. This can be an excellent measure to prevent the issues from escalating into depression or an anxiety disorder.
- Speak to the school counselor or teacher after consulting with your child. Please make sure that this is a step that she wants to take. Be sure to stay calm when discussing the situation with them; it means a lot to your child to see that you are being a strong, firm advocate for them and that you are not overwhelmed.
A United Methodist pastor in rural Tennessee named Brad Smith, said something beautiful: “God of all people, all shapes and all sizes, all races and all nationalities, all orientations and identities, and all abilities, I pray for all those who will struggle this year as victims of bullying. I pray for those who will be teased relentlessly verbally and online. I pray for those who will be physically assaulted because they are different. I pray for those who have to change in the locker room. I pray for those who think they are alone. They are not. I pray for those who think hope is gone. It is not. I pray for those who think suicide is the only escape. It gets better. I pray for the parents of the bullied who feel helpless to protect their child. God help them. Strengthen them. Show them your love. Let them feel your hope. Not only this, but I also pray for those who engage in bullying. I pray for those whose self-worth and self-esteem seem tied to making others hurt. I pray for the parents of bullies who ignore the signs and think their child could never do this. I pray for the teachers who stand up for kids and for the teachers who ignore the problem. I pray for those who think this is just a rite of passage. It is not. I pray that not one child this year decides that suicide is the answer. I pray for those who succumbed to hopelessness. I pray that we can all learn from the mistakes and tragedies of the past and that we can protect our children and let every child know they are of great worth.”