How Can Parents Help Prevent Bullying in Middle School?

Bullying Prevention Awareness Month is over, and unfortunately it had a horrific run of high-profile tragedies: two teacher fatalities at the hands of students, several bullying-related suicides and attempted suicides, two Florida bullies charged with felonies, and a 14-year-old shooter charged as an adult. Once again, we’re left to face the grim reality that bullying is alive and well in our culture.

A Sensitive Developmental Period

But there’s something that all of these cases had in common—and that the news media didn’t notice. All of the kids involved in these events were 12-14 years old.

No surprise, from a developmental perspective. The onset of puberty remodels the developing brain—both for humans and for many animal species—in a way that makes young adolescents especially sensitive to their social world. The reason for this can be understood through an evolutionary lens: Reproduction requires social skills—mating, parenting, fitting in to the social niche, coordinating to secure resources, taking care of the community, etc. So it would make sense that while bodies are being reshaped to produce offspring, brains would also simultaneously change to make us more socially receptive and active at that time.

How does puberty make teens more susceptible to bullying?

Recent research on the teen brain shows that adolescents, compared to both children and adults, are exceptionally sensitive to social dynamics. In brain-imaging studies, teen brains show more activation in regions that process rewards, motivations and emotions (the socioaffective circuitry in the subcortical, limbic regions) compared to children and adults. As a result, teens can feel more intensely, especially about social interactions. They more easily feel judged, threatened, and evaluated by others.

In laboratory studies where kids thought they were being watched by peers while they performed a task, the stress hormone cortisol spiked for girls at 13 and remained high for both boys and girls at 15. When excluded from a ball-toss game, young and middle adolescents showed a greater drop in mood and rise in anxiety compared to adults. And in driving simulations, teens made riskier and more dangerous decisions in the presence of peers, compared to adult drivers.

Along with this greater social dysregulation, the self-control system emanating from the frontal cortex, which is present from birth, is gradually being elaborated in the teenage brain. When teens do tasks and make decisions that don’t involve emotions, they can perform as well as—sometimes even better than—adults. But when decisions involve emotions and social dynamics, the dysregulation often overwhelms teens’ emerging self-control. The two brain systems come online in different strengths at different times, and the relationship between them is at its most vulnerable in early puberty.

What can schools do to prevent bullying?

I spent my bullying prevention month, in between bouts of heartbreak for the families, writing and speaking about what schools can do—not merely to try to handle bullying once it has happened but to prevent it from happening in the first place. Frankly, we know from the research that current, punishment-based bullying-prevention approaches are not working. In my view, and that of my colleagues, that’s because they don’t address the source of the problem, the feelings that the bullies are acting out—and that the school and community system haven’t been taught to handle. Schools need to take a meaningful, holistic, science-based, and emotionally focused approach to the problem.

Disclaimer: I work with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and I do believe they have the best prevention program. In a recent presentation at Yale, I made the case, with colleagues, for why we should be teaching emotion skills from preschool through high school to prevent bullying. We already know enough—and the data continue to come in—to see that this makes a huge difference. See a shorter description of the argument in my op-ed piece, written with my colleague Robin, here.

Check to see if your school has a systematic emotion-skills curriculum in use from grades K-12. If not, you might suggest that as a place to start preventing bullying as well as building other skills for success.

What can parents do to prevent bullying in middle school?

Most bullying prevention advice to parents falls along the lines of, “Watch for signs that your child is being bullied” and “Have conversations with your kids.” Both are important but not truly preventative: They’re directives for when bullying has already happened.

First, there are multiple players in a bullying scenario, each with different characteristics. And there are ways to help prevent your child from inhabiting any of these roles—and to set up your child to make good choices if she does end up there:

  • Bullies by definition use power over other kids. In a longitudinal study of middle school kids, the ones that became chronic bullies had a lot of conflict with parents and peers, and lacked moral skills. There’s a lot you can do as parent to minimize these vulnerabilities.
  • Children who are bullied are usually perceived to be “different” in some way. Though there’s only so much one can do to control others’ behavior, children can be taught a little bit about how to navigate their “differentness” in their peer context. Children who are bullied also often have social difficulties—and there’s a lot you can do to help that.
  • Bystanders might collude with bullies. But more often than not, they simply don’t know what to do. Parents can do a lot about that.

There’s no magic key to prevent bullying, but research in developmental science offers a lot of suggestions for parents. One important study tracked almost 900 middle school kids for seven years and found that about 42% never bullied at all, while about 10% became serious bullies. The remainder—almost half of kids—experimented with bullying but gave it up as they learned better ways of interacting. So it’s likely that with just a little focus from parents and schools, the vast majority of bullying could easily be eliminated.

The parent’s role in bullying prevention becomes a lot less mysterious if you understand it as an outcome of basic, healthy parenting. That is, when you create an environment in which children are loved, supported, and guided in healthy ways, in which their needs are seen and valued and met, you’re also creating an environment in which bullying is a lot less likely to happen—and if it does happen, in which your child has healthy boundaries and is more resilient.

Early prevention:

Foster healthy parent-child relationships

Cultivate a healthy attachment bond with your child from the beginning. That bond is one of the major protective blankets that are predictive of a healthy sense of self, achievement, social skills, and resilience over the long run. Also, children naturally want to cooperate with parents when they have a healthy attachment.

Enjoy your children. That, too, is one of the strongest, all-around protectors of children’s development. Make sure to balance stress with fun. There should be at least as much positive neurochemistry bathing their brains as there is stress, and ideally more. Parents’ pleasure in their children is like sunshine to flowers. It enhances their self-worth, sets a bar for the quality of relationships, and fosters better overall health and optimism.

Support healthy social skills: friendships and boundaries

Support the development of your children’s friendships. Make your house fun for kids to be at (you’ll learn a lot). Drive them to each other’s houses. Make friends with other parents: You’ll need that network in middle and high school. Foster friendly relationships with your children’s friends. Cultivate a reputation as having a home that is open, welcoming, and safe for friends. When your children’s friends are in your home, strike a balance between being available and respecting their privacy.

Support children’s friendships in multiple spheres. That way, if things are bumpy at school, as they will inevitably be, kids have other peer groups that still feel good—a sports team or drama class or Girl Scouts or neighbors or cousins. It makes kids less vulnerable.

Support your child’s healthy boundaries. What does that look like? Some examples from my own parenting: I wouldn’t let other adults kiss my kids unless my kids allowed it; when another adult said something unkind to my daughter, I encouraged my daughter to let the adult know it hurt her feelings; and I have “educated” clerks who have scared or come on to my daughters.

Model healthy assertiveness yourself.

Help your children learn to exit situations where other people’s behavior deteriorates, or becomes unacceptable. For example, for preschoolers, parents might step in and say something like, “If it’s not fun anymore maybe it’s time to stop.” For teenagers, it’s helpful to make a safety contract that insures that he or she can get out of sticky situations. Ours, which was provided by our children’s school, read something like this: “If you’re ever in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, I will pick you up, no questions asked. You can use me as the bad guy to leave, e.g., ‘I’m bummed but my parents want me home by…’”

Encourage kindness. Vivian Paley’s classic book about inclusive play among kindergartners (and other elementary school children) is very helpful in this area: You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

Use respectful, not power-assertive, parenting strategies.

I used to ride horses, and training huge fight-or-flight animals taught me a thing or two about parenting. If I wanted to turn the horse, I kept the rein on the outside of the turn taut and firm against the horse’s side, communicating, in other words, “You may not cross this line.” At the same time, I kept the rein on the inside of the turn soft and slack, communicating, “You may make several choices in this direction.” I remained the ultimate decider, because letting the horse run away with me would be a disaster. Yet somehow the artful combination of direction, boundary, and joyful back-and-forth created a unified, uplifting experience. Riding—and parenting—is a constant stream of such micro-decisions about direction and who gets to have their say. And parenting is a gradual process of handing over those reins to our offspring.

Many bullies have themselves been treated badly. Of course, it should go without saying that it’s crucial that parents not bully or intimidate children—or use authoritarian tactics. The Balinese say that if you yell at a child, her spirit can fly out of her body. Decades of research draw similar conclusions. Instead, psychologists recommend an authoritative parenting style—neither permissive nor dominating—that sets clear expectations; helps children meet those expectations; allows consequences for violations of limits; uses age-appropriate, democratic decision-making; and is warm, loving, and pleasurable. Authoritative parenting is predictive of all kinds of good outcomes: Kids feel good about themselves, they achieve more, and they have better social skills. If there’s one parenting framework to learn, it’s this one.

Teach and model healthy ways to resolve conflict. Practicing negotiating conflict helps children develop an internal compass, so that they can feel from inside what respectful power-sharing is, as opposed to an abuse of power.

Know what your kids are doing. Researchers call this awareness “parental monitoring,” and it, too, is a strong predictor of child outcome. This is not intrusive tracking but rather a light awareness of where and how your child is doing that comes through communication both with your child and the people around him/her.

Pick your battles. Appearance, music, and other aspects of pop culture are all superficial issues on which kids have been staking their “differentness” from parents for generations. My kids had 17 body pierces between the two of them: I thought they would spring leaks. The big stuff—values, behavior, education, treating others kindly, developing themselves, and feeling good—are worth fighting for. In healthy parent-child relationships, research shows that the majority of kids end up emulating their parents’ values as young adults anyway.

Talk to kids and LISTEN. Research shows that children crave conversations about the things that really matter. Toward the end of middle school, talks about gender identity, sexuality, and sexual orientation become important, for both boys and for girls. These connections may minimize gender-based harassment. The good news is that kids want to have trusted adults to talk to, and they are reaching out more and more.

But timing and setting matter. Talk when, and in places where, your child is more comfortable: on walks, late at night, riding in the car, doing dishes together. Before the talk, take a moment to check in with yourself and manage your own feelings. Then listen to your child without guiding the conversation anywhere but toward what he/she wants to express, reflecting what you hear and validating feelings. After that has run its course, gently move toward problem-solving together.

Have regular family meetings where everyone has a voice. There are lots of books on family meetings.

Work with your child’s unique temperament and personality. Some kids are super- sensitive to their environment and can be shy, introverted, or easily overwhelmed. Other kids may be extroverted, energetic, or need an audience. What works for one child may not work with another. Gauge your guidance accordingly.

Support healthy development of self

Support basic health. It is tough to accomplish, but kids need enough sleep! Teens’ circadian rhythms are changing, and that makes them sleep later and wake later. This doesn’t mesh with school schedules so make sure that there’s time for catch-up sleep on weekends. Healthy food is also important, as is exercise.

Pets can be wonderful companions when things are tough elsewhere.

Help kids develop their interests.

Schedule special time—one-on-one time with each individual child once a week, preferably where they get to choose the activity. It’s a time for them to have your undivided attention and know that they’re important to you.

Promote age-appropriate independence. My mantra was, “For each increasing freedom, there’s a concomitant responsibility.” You want to stay overnight at a friend’s house? I need to be sure that you get a reasonable amount of sleep. You want to go downtown? I need you to call me and let me know you arrived safely. Set your kids up for success.

Don’t mistake kids’ developing autonomy with rejection of you. They are beginning the long journey to define themselves, but they don’t actually want to break the relationship with you…even though at times it can feel like all they do is push back. Look for strategies to manage those times.

Build webs of support around children

Know other parents and talk with them. If your child is going to a friend’s house, make a connection: “Thank you for having Joey over tomorrow night. I just wanted to check and see, will you be there? Is there any way I can help?”

It almost goes without saying, but…

Make sure that bullying is not happening in the home, either between adults and children or among multiple children (siblings, cousins, etc).

Delay, or avoid altogether, exposure to violent imagery—TV, movies, games, toys. Here’s a resource to help manage media.

A word on social media: For young teens 12-14 who are already super-sensitive to social activity without many positive coping strategies, social media use can be like adding gasoline to a flame. True, social media can have lots of advantages, like supporting friendships and staying in touch with distant friends and relatives. As with TV, it all depends on how it’s used—and it’s good to be aware of how your kids are using it, good to have a running discussion about it, and good to have etiquette rules about it. There are lots of online resources with guidelines to help.

Low-level intervention:

What about when low-level bullying starts to happen? A phrase, a conversation, or a you’re-on-notice, can sometimes help to defuse things early and prevent escalation. In many cases, they simply need a learning moment—a boundary, a limit, an early chance to correct their behavior. Even for true bullying among middle school kids, studies show that “bystander intervention” stops most incidents quickly.

When a snarky peer repeatedly made my daughter the odd-one-out in a carpool—which I was driving—I first tried coaching my daughter (“It’s not okay to be treated like that”). When that didn’t stop the triangulation, I tried saying something to the girl. Finally, I called the mother, explained what was happening, and let her know that I wouldn’t be able to drive her daughter if this continued.

Another example: When a boy in my carpool made homophobic slurs against another boy, I first said, “Hey, that’s not okay.” When it continued, I pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned around, and said, “This is not allowed in my car. If it continues, I will let you out, call your parents, and have them drive you the rest of the way.”

By the time my daughter was in the 8th grade she came to the defense, in a very public way, of a girl who was on the receiving end of widespread taunting and teasing. Cultivating upstanders is possible.

If hurtful, full-blown bullying happens:

  • Stay safe
  • Decide whether to report it, and to whom
  • Protect your kid
  • Decide if outside help is needed
  • Decide whether to engage the school

Most bullying takes place at school, so until schools take the development of children’s emotion skills seriously, I’m sad to say it may continue there.

But in the meantime, there is a lot we parents can do at home to raise children who would never dream of bullying, or who would step up in resistance, or go for help when it happens.

The increased sensitivity that happens in middle school as a result of changes in the brain also presents vast opportunities for good if we adults stay attuned to it. As the songwriter Jewel says, "Please be careful with me. I'm sensitive and I want to stay that way."   We are on the brink of growing a healthier generation of children.