Many of us who practice attachment parenting aren’t concerned about our kids becoming bullies. The whole point of this parenting style is to instill within our children the values of empathy, compassion, and respect for others. But sometimes we may wonder if that soft heart we’re cultivating may make our child the target of a bully.
Lysa Parker, co-founder of Attachment Parenting International, shared with me how this concern is common among parents of kind and sensitive children. There is no guaranteed protection against bullying behavior, but attachment parenting carries with it some innate insurance.
A hallmark of attachment parenting is raising children with the ability to freely express their feelings while remaining respectful to others. Take this a step further to where a child feels empowered to draw his own relationship boundaries, including with a bully, and we’ve got assertiveness.
Interactions with an aggressive or exploitative child generally polarize the potential relationship: On one end, we have the bully attempting to control the victim; on the other end is the victim allowing herself to be controlled. Assertiveness transcends this “natural” bully-victim relationship so that the situation is controlled.
Parents of young children have an opportunity to teach not only their child to be assertive in friendships, but also to guide his friends in what a healthy relationship looks like. Parker recommends talking with our children’s peers about how their words and actions, if concerning, can be hurtful. Particularly with a child demonstrating persistent bullying behavior, it may be helpful to talk to the child’s parent, too. However, bullying behavior in a child is often learned from parents, so beware that the conversation may not be as productive as you may hope.
But much of the parent’s true power in teaching assertiveness isn’t talking to our child’s peers. It’s in supporting our kids by listening when they seek support, validating, and empowering them by giving them words to express their feelings to others and then a plan of action if the bully continues his behavior.
In fact, we are already doing this. By responding to our newborn’s cries and our toddler’s tantrums, we communicated to our child that their feelings are okay, that we are willing and ready to listen, and that they are free to express themselves. Through gentle discipline, we have helped our kids to be able to better manage the behaviors that go along with their strong emotions so that they are still able to express their feelings but in a way that is safe and respectful to themselves and others.
When our children encounter a peer who doesn’t allow them this respect and space for expressing their feelings, alarm bells ring in their brains that something is not healthy in that relationship. With our support, they are better able to navigate the bully’s desire for control.
Allowing our children the right to make choices, to discover their talents, and to develop skills in their areas of interest are other ways to increase their self-confidence. Emotional intelligence, healthy expression, respect for self and others, and healthy self-confidence all combine to help a child make decisions regarding which relationships to pursue and which to avoid.
The bully-victim dynamic is a relationship to steer clear of, but the victim has to understand the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship. Attachment parenting gives our kids clear parameters of what healthy relationship looks like.
Through attachment parenting, we are instinctively modeling behaviors that communicate our family values. Respect for self and others is a foundation of assertiveness. It’s important to review our words and actions to be sure they’re not contradicting the values we want to pass down. Some of the messages to consider with our own behavior include:
- No one has the right to make me feel guilty, foolish, or ignorant.
- I do not need to make excuses for everything I do, although I do need to be accountable to my family and myself.
- I am allowed to change my mind, and not feel guilty about it.
- It is not necessarily my fault if things go wrong
- I do not have to know everything, it is okay to say “I don’t know,” and I shouldn’t feel inferior because of that.
- No one is perfect, and it is not the end of the world if I make a mistake.
- Not everyone has to be my friend, and there is nothing wrong with me if someone doesn’t like me.
- If I don’t understand something, it’s okay and I shouldn’t feel unintelligent.
- I do not have to prove myself to anyone else.
- I do not need to be perfect, rather I should strive to just be myself.
Keep in mind that the best way to teach assertiveness is by parents modeling it to their children, especially during moments of conflict — through gentle discipline — as well as by accepting their child’s assertiveness toward them.
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