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  • Junior Oliveira

Bully Proof Your Child (Without Being a Helicopter Parent)

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

Hi Everyone! Firstly, I would like to explain that I am an only child, and as I’ve matured, I've realised that being an only kid is a double-edged sword, and to explain this statement, I would mention that I had the joys of undivided love and attention, but on the other hand I had to pay a certain cost for that.

Thus, in a way, I had to accept overprotection and some lack of privacy for a great part of my life; as time went by, here I am, an adult man, with "scratches", "bruises" and (of course) some resilience after a long "walk through" my childhood and adolescence as an only child. Well, nowadays I have my own lovely family, and "wow", surprise, I am a parent of a lovely only child.

You live and learn, right? Now, I realise that being a parent of an only child can be a real challenge as well, and it’s easy for parents like me to feel a sense of intense pressure, and make their children feel stifled, or annoyed, or incapable;


I understand that, although we may worry, sometimes for valid reasons, about our children’s development, independence, school progress and social life, it is also quite common for us to get caught up in trying to be "one step ahead" to help our children with their own issues instead of staying supportive in order to make them solve their own problems. No, no and no -  I don't want to be a helicopter parent!

But, what does "helicopter parenting" mean? The term "helicopter parent" was first used by Dr Haim Ginott in his book Parents & Teenagers (1969), as he interviewed some youngsters and they said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter, and then this term became popular enough to become a dictionary entry in 2011. It is also important to say that this term is not just related to parents of single children, but rather this parenting behaviour can happen with any family.    

Bullying - a global challenge  I know that this may sound obvious, but I can safely say that this is a global and social issue with numerous detrimental side effects and, unfortunately, children are bullied for several reasons; sometimes they are bullied because they have learning difficulties, or because they are clever or they are not considered physically attractive, or they are not popular. It can also be the result of differences in religion, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. I could go on for pages and pages, writing about possible (nonsense) reasons for all stupid acts related to bullying, but I am sure you understand my point.

Overprotected children are more likely to be bullied by their peers, research suggests. I read an article on the BBC webpage which explains exactly that some studies have confirmed that children of overprotective parents are risk-averse, cannot deal adequately with challenges, personal issues and other frustrations in life. In this article, Prof Dieter Wolke (the University of Warwick-based psychology professor) emphasises that bullies find dominance by targeting the children they find to be the most vulnerable, picking again on the ones who cry or run away after an initial attack.

A very sad example: I remember when I was in secondary school, there was a girl, with a pretty face and long straight black hair, she was quite tall, I definitively  think that she could have been a model.  I still remember her name, but I prefer not to mention it here, due to obvious privacy reasons. She used to live 100 metres from our school. However, her mum used to take her to school every day. There was nothing wrong with this girl, she was a dedicated student, very engaged in the school newsletter, but she had just a few teachers as her friends. My classmates found it totally absurd and nonsense that a mother would take her 14-year-old girl to school. Another sad fact is that she was constantly derided by the other children, and called a "silly giant girl" or even worse. This girl never participated in school fairs or any other events, as many of them were unsupervised. Her parents insisted upon being present at her every move. And sadly, some of my classmates consistently bullied her no end. Everywhere she went, she was with her parents. This is a clear example that, oftentimes, overprotective mums and dads believe that they are doing the best thing for their children, but they should be aware that children’s independence leads to the best outcomes when dealing with adversities in their lives. 


Going straight to the point: How can we raise a resilient child (capable of coping with bullying) without being a helicopter parent?  Firstly, we should bear in mind that we may not be able to remove or avoid all issues related to bullying, as might occur at school or in another social environment (with restricted access for children for example), but we can pass on skills to help our little ones cope with this kind of adversity.

As parents, we are an essential element for nurturing our children with the ability to overcome through experience, and to be shaped positively by this. Going straight to the bottom line, here is a list with useful tips on how to raise a confident child without being overprotective: 

1) BE AWARE, BE INVOLVED BUT DO NOT SUFFOCATE YOUR CHILD WITH YOUR PRESENCE

You may be suffocating your kids without knowing it! We know that most mum and dads with overprotective tendencies have the best intentions in the world: "to keep their children safe, healthy and happy".  However,  Deborah Lan (Child Psychologist and Kids and Screens Collaborator) explains that this desire to keep kids safe could be stifling the development of basic life skills, and children whose parents are over-involved in their lives have a greater likelihood of developing low self-esteem,  anxiety or engaging in risky behaviour.  We have to bear in mind that children are in some way "studying" the world, through their personal experiences, struggling to learn the rules of society by themselves are essential stages for their lives.

In general, if your child does not learn to deal with challenges and failures, they may not be able to cope with defeats in later life, mainly because big or small problems are part of everyday living and unfortunately, there is no dearth of bullying in schools, preschools or even in the job market!

2) KEEP AN OPEN LINE OF COMMUNICATION When I wrote my previous article "Bully-Proof Your Sensitive Child", I noticed that one of the most important pieces of advice from several psychologists basically referred to a positive relationship, in which parents must be aware of how things are going at school or/and in other social circles of their children's lives. Do your best to have the kind of relationship where you keep the lines of communication open.

However, Dr Lan explains that, sometimes, there are barriers that affect the flow of communication at home. Therefore, parents must encourage their kids to talk to other adults in their lives who they might also be close to, such as an aunt/uncle, cousin or friend. Another important piece of advice is that parents must teach children to ask for support and help when they do not feel confident: this is a really important skill they’ll need in order to succeed  in life, and this is a tip that I will mention in the following paragraphs.

3) TEACH YOUR CHILD TO ASK FOR HELP

As I have mentioned previously, as parents, we have to be sure that we "send" a positive message that it is ok seeking for help. Dr Eileen Kennedy-Moore (Psychology Today) explains that "Knowing how and when to ask for help is a critical life skill that many children struggle to master. Their own feelings may get in the way of communicating what they need. They may also have beliefs that lead them to avoid asking for help or ask too frequently or at inappropriate times." Dr Lan adds that there are so many stigmas attached to asking for help and it is can be challenging for everyone, adults or children, mainly because we’re often taught to be self-reliant, brave and independent.

According to an ABC Documentary, the fear of repercussions and the feeling of not being taken seriously are two reasons why children who are bullied don't seek help from adults. For this reason, it is important to empower young people to be in touch with you always when it is necessary. Dr Lan explains that usually, kids do not talk about bullying because it can make them feel helpless and humiliated.


4) TRUTH BE TOLD - PREPARING THEM FOR LIFE   Sometimes I catch myself trying to find excuses for avoiding sensitive questions, for example about death or even some silly things related to my son's sports performance, but Dr Deborah Lan explains that shielding children from hard truths "hurts" rather than helps, and of course it's not malicious - we are just trying to save our kids' feelings. 

Also, Dr. L. Alan Sroufe, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, says that, for example, telling your kids that the family pet has gone to a farm upstate when the animal is actually dead is a good example of this common mistake that parents make.  Sometimes it is quite tricky to handle these difficult situations, or we just hope to avoid the issue, but making things up or lying to protect our child from pain actually backfires because it distorts reality, which is unnecessary and potentially damaging. 

However, Dr Lan explains that, regarding sensitive questions, it is important to be sure your explanation is age-appropriate. A very young child does not need a long explanation of death or dying; for example, why not to tell them that a person was very ill and the doctors couldn't make the illness go away may be all that's needed.

Considering this, the MIT researcher  adds that a line must be drawn between the truth and the whole truth. Telling a child the full details of rape, for instance, or other forms of distressing abuse would clearly cause a lot more damage. However, in those instances, even if the child has a sense that you are withholding information, this may serve to foster the sense that there are very bad things in the world and prepare the ground for coming to terms with the full facts in years to come.  5) STRATEGISE WITH YOUR CHILD 

A very important tip is to give your kids the skills they need to solve their own problems, as they will then be able to make good decisions when you are not there to help. The author Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC (Empowering Parents) explains that we have to find ways to teach our children problem-solving skills and then we can help the child by having problem-solving conversations around bullying and coming up with strategies together. Here are some strategies you might suggest to your child:

1) Teach your child not to react out of fear. 2) Teach them to have some slogans ready—and then walk away: One simple phrase like “Cut it out” or “Stop” or “I’ve had enough” or “Not funny” can be very effective when your child is being bullied. Encourage them to find a way to say something that feels right to them. They don’t need to insult the other person back or get reactive to it.

3) Tell your child to try to ignore bullying by either pretending they don’t hear or by keeping a straight face and not reacting to the taunts.

4) Use the buddy system: Tell your child that there is strength in numbers; when your child is with a friend, it makes it harder to be isolated or targeted by bullies.

5) Encourage your child to talk to someone at school when they are being bullied.

6) NURTURING CHILDREN TO INDEPENDENCE: "YOU CAN DO IT!"

By providing the right amount of support, positiveness and challenges, we can nurture our children's drive toward reliance. I should also say that one of the main roles we have as parents is to help our little ones to develop the necessary life tools to become independent beings. Jim Taylor PhD (Psychology Today) explains that children can use these tools to survive outside of the safe harbour of family and home.

And, unlike independence, the focus of the meaning is on your children’s capabilities and belief in their ability to act on their world. In sum, here’s my advice to you. Keep your children dependent on you (in the sense of having them stay connected to you) while giving them all the tools they need to rely on themselves as they transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. This is definitively a great start. As emphasised by Dr Lan, if children are independent and resilient, they will cope with bullying much more effectively than those who are not.

My final considerations: We all want to love our children as much as possible and protect them from the issues in our society. However, we have to be aware that, as parents, we can shape our children's future emotional lives from the very beginning.

Some recent studies have shown a connection between helicopter parenting and mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and frustration, as children get older and try to make it on their own. Sadly, helicopter parenting style is classified as "controlling style: from good intentions to poor outcomes".

However, if necessary, take action to stop bullying, and also help your child learn how to make smart choices and take action when they feel bullied or see another child being bullied. Please be ready to go further if necessary, and try to get help from others outside of school, such as a police officer or an NGO member, and take advantage of other recognised organisations that can deal with and stop bullying.


You may be interested in:

16 Signs Your Child Is Being Bullied

Bully Proof 1 - Raising a Confident and Sensitive Child


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