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Learning to deal with bullies

There's trouble brewing in the locker area. Joey is pulling Megan's hair, Suzie is pressuring Laura to do her homework, and Butch is making a vulgar gesture toward Freddie.

This is what parents want to protect their children from: the sport of cruelty that some kids play. We want to shield our youngsters from the sadistic side of others, from emotional wounds that never quite heal.

There will always be bullies, meanies and little nasties who start fights, put tacks in seats or spread malicious rumors. Some kids will be luckier than others and won't have to endure anything more than a passing smirk or some silly teasing. Others will be picked on throughout their school careers.

How well children deal with bullies will help them when they grow up, because, as we know very well, there are adult bullies in our workplaces and communities and on our highways. No matter what age, bullies are always looking for a battle to win, even if they have to start the battle themselves.

Bullies' strengths are size and power. They tend to be bigger, stronger or louder than their peers, and their victims often are the exact opposite. Potential victims may be small, weak, shy or fearful. They also may have trouble relating to their classmates and have few close friends who can rally around for support.

Girls can be bullies, but they show their aggression in different ways. They may exclude someone from a party or group gathering, belittle another child in front of others or spread vicious rumors to ruin reputations.

Getting meanies to change isn't easy, because they often are victims themselves. They often come from families in which physical force or emotional abuse is used to settle disputes. It's much easier for victims to stop bullies from pushing them around, but to do so, they need to change the victim mentality.

Here are ways parents can help their children avoid being victims.

Make sure your children feel comfortable enough to admit that someone is bothering them.

If parents make kids feel like "wimpy babies" for being bullied, then children will have nowhere to turn.

If possible, a child should try to work it out with the other youngster. It's a good idea to tell a teacher or school counselor that the two kids are having trouble getting along.

When pushed, a child shouldn't push back. Both kids will end up in a fight, one that the bully will probably win.

To discourage repeat attacks, a child must make a stand ("I will not fight!") and walk away with dignity.

Every child needs to learn self-reliance and stand up for himself. If kids are too dependent on friends and adults for help, they won't learn to develop their own strengths and coping strategies.

If in spite of your best attempts to teach coping skills, the harassment continues, then it's time for a parent to step in. Some nasties don't respond to reason and common sense. Young children can't always resolve their own conflicts when they're being exposed to repeated insults, humiliations or abuses. Failure to take any action will only escalate the victimization.

If the problem occurs on school property, ask an administrator for help. A call from the school letting the other parents know what's going on keeps you from getting into it with someone who might feel threatened or angry. If it's a neighborhood problem, you should speak to the other parents directly.

With help from caring adults, all children can learn to deal effectively with the bullies, meanies and nasties who excel at nothing, except intimidating and harassing others.

Carolyn Sandlin-Sniffen teaches language arts and reading at Seminole Middle School in Pinellas County.

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