Commentary: Many parents don’t know how to react when kids get bullied – and that’s okay
It might not come naturally but parents eventually need to learn how to deal with such scenarios, including developing competencies and support networks, says Centre for Fathering’s Bryan Tan.
SINGAPORE: The recent viral video of a suicidal nine-year-old Australian boy crying his heart out because he was teased in school drew an international outpouring of support.
In the livestreamed video, Quaden Bayles, born with a condition commonly known as dwarfism, sobbed as his mother narrated how he had been teased, how she felt inadequate in building his resilience towards such treatment, and wishing that their community could be more inclusive.
Like many others, my heart went out to Quaden for the rejection that he must have felt, every time he met someone who did not know how to respond appropriately to his physical condition.
EMPOWERING OUR CHILDREN
Many parents would have faced similar situations where our children come home crying.
We parents know how dire the consequences of such bullying can be.
Bullied victims are between two to nine times more likely to consider suicide according to a study by Yale University. A study in Britain also found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.
As parents, we might not always be able to shield our children from teasing and bullying, but we could certainly build their sense of personal resilience by affirming them, and making them feel more secure in who they are and how much they are loved.
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There are several measures that parents can take to better prepare themselves to handle such situations and empower their children to deal with bullying.
RESILIENCE BEGINS AT HOME
First, inevitably starts with the home environment.
In the eyes of every parent, his or her child is precious, and Quaden is no different in that regard.
But it is also the responsibility of parents to create a safe and conducive environment at home where tough conversations, facilitated by trust, can happen. If children feel unconditionally loved and accepted, they may be able to talk about such episodes more openly.
Research has shown that meeting such basic needs would also facilitate the holistic development of children, and helps them build character to see them through tough times.
Renowned British doctor and television presenter Robert Winston explained in a 2016 paper for the London Journal of Primary Care that strong parental support starts from when children are infants and that “without a good initial bond, children are less likely to grow up to become happy, independent and resilient adults”.
Apart from demonstrating love, empathy and affirmation, parents also should engage in emotion-coaching to act as role models to show how adversity can be overcome.
They are never too young for such positive experiences.
But dealing with such issues may not come naturally to most parents. After all, there is a fine line between helicopter parenting and parenting that leads from the front.
That moment when his mother saw him being teased in the gymnasium, and not knowing how to intervene as he also mouthed to her not to, is a scene that many parents could relate to.
Playground politics quite often leads to teasing and bullying, and it is sometimes easier for parents to intervene in instances of outright bullying, but less so in the case of what appears as “harmless” teasing.
That is where, as parents, we need to have open and frequent communication with our children so that we can not only equip them with the necessary skills to deal with such situations but also so that they can tell us when they want us to intervene.
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For instance do you ask your child about their day to gauge what their experiences have been? Does your child know how to convey feelings of fear or bad experiences to you on their own? Do you yourself convey how your day went, as a form of role modelling?
For example, we could share with our children how our day went by highlighting the parts that made us glad, sad, mad or scared. By using emotive words, we help our children build a vocabulary to articulate how they feel, and role-model how we manage our emotions in a healthy manner.
In Singapore, we are fortunate to have several platforms that help parents with such skills. The Centre for Fathering (CFF) conducts weekly fathering workshops to empower fathers to strengthen their relationships in the home and address contemporary issues that children face in their growing years.
Fathers are equipped to become more involved, consistent, aware and nurturing in their fathering competencies. And a strong emphasis is also made to form father groups throughout Singapore that provides fathers with timely support.
Through the national Dads for Life movement, many fathers of children with special needs started getting together to create friendship and share experiences. They volunteered their time and resources with CFF to mobilise other fathers and families in similar situations,
IT REALLY TAKES A VILLAGE
A major thrust for these initiatives is that we recognise that parents need support too in addressing bullying. It is okay to admit that parenting might not come naturally.
Having a community of peers for support, and evidence-based techniques to strengthen parenting competencies can empower parents and build emotionally stronger kids.
And it would certainly help if there was a good partnership between parents and school leaders to address such issues.
As for the rest of us in the community and support-network, providing adequate and appropriate responses and support is key.
In Quaden’s case for instance, it was encouraging to see the outpouring of support he received from everyone who viewed the video, including affirmation from celebrities like Hugh Jackman, who committed to being his friend.
And the amount of sponsorships his family received to bring him to Disneyland and to travel the globe was astounding.
While such outpouring of international support would no doubt have made Quaden feel better supported, one can’t help wonder if a portion of those funds raised could instead be used to sponsor appropriate therapy and support for him.
This would strengthen his resilience as he navigates the ideation phase during adolescence, in view of his emotional sensitivity.
Regardless, as the adage goes, it takes a village to raise our children together, and we require all hands on deck as we address raising the next generation of our nation.
Bryan Tan is the CEO of Dads for Life and the Centre for Fathering. Formerly a senior officer with the Singapore Armed Forces, he made a mid-career switch to the social service sector to serve fathers and the “fatherless” in our nation.