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Big Bullies

By now you've probably seen the viral video of Rutgers' basketball coach, Mike Rice, venting his rage and bullying his players. Although this video ultimately got him fired, it appears that it was the intervention of another grown man on Rice's staff, Eric Murdock, that brought his behavior to light. His players remained silent. For parents, it's hard to believe that these young men were subjected to this type of abusive behavior—and perhaps just as hard to believe that no player spoke up. Is there a way to raise kids who will?

When you tell your kids things like, "Just do what I say!" or, "Stop acting like a baby!" you send them the message that their feelings don't matter

Most parents want to raise a child who respects all people, but especially adults in positions of authority (you, teachers, coaches, doctors, etc.). Even so, you also want to raise a child who knows the importance of personal boundaries and can stand up for himself and others when those boundaries are violated. Perhaps you've talked to your kids about good touch vs. bad touch, choosing their battles, walking away from a fight or accepting what they have to do even if they don't like it. Through this process you expect them to learn right from wrong and know when to challenge authority and when to defer. The truth is that teaching your kids to know when to submit to authority and when to be assertive is a fine balance.

Whether it's at home, the classroom, the locker room or the workplace, learning to stand up to adult bullies starts at a young age and it is rooted with parental empathy. If you are dismissive of your child's feelings, why would she believe that another adult will value them? When your child is upset, listen first, empathize and validate second and respond last. Sometimes all it takes is, "I can see that you're feeling disappointed right now," or, "It makes sense to me that you're really angry," to help a child of any age feel that her feelings are valued and understood. When you tell your kids things like, "Just do what I say!" or, "Stop acting like a baby!" you send them the message that their feelings don't matter and that compliance is valued above all else. To be clear, this does not mean that you have to give in or do what they want of you, it just means that you let them know their feelings matter even if they don't get what they want.

On a related note, you can protect your children from adult bullying by believing them and supporting them when they tell you about adults who mistreat them. Of course, it is important to investigate further when they complain about their teacher or coach, but when your child complains about how any other person (big or small) is treating him, let him know that you are listening and that what he has told you matters.

Perhaps the most challenging part of raising an assertive kid who will be prepared for adult bullies is allowing her to speak her mind to you

Demonstrate it by being present. Show up to school or to practice. If you're there enough, the bully's true behavior will come out. If it doesn't, then at least you've let your child know that his safety and well-being matter to you and you've let his bully know that you are watching. Don't dismiss your child if you don't see the bullying with your own eyes. Let him know you'll keep checking and encourage him to continue to tell you if anything further happens. Yes, there will be times that you have to tell your child to suck it up and take responsibility for his own behaviors, but he'll be much more open to hearing it (and he'll know you're right) if he's had the experience of being validated and protected by you.

Finally, perhaps the most challenging part of raising an assertive kid who will be prepared for adult bullies is allowing her to speak her mind to you. Backtalk is often seen as disrespectful, bad behavior (and sometimes it is). But the most common complaint among the teens I see in my office is that their parents don't understand what it's like for them. Most often this is directly related to the fact that they are expected to accept their parents' word as gospel without so much as a peep in response—or when they are allowed to speak they are summarily dismissed.

The reality is that kids need to be taught how to express their dissent in a respectful way, not to stifle it altogether. When you expect your kid to be compliant and passive at home, you can't expect her to then be assertive and outspoken elsewhere. The best way to teach her to be assertive is by example. Speak directly, but calmly and respectfully to her. Be firm when necessary, but seek out opportunities to listen first and keep an open mind. Encourage dialogue by asking questions and respond with empathy and validation whenever possible. And finally, whenever she stands up for herself in a healthy, respectful way, give her praise and acknowledgement, even if you can't change your mind.

One more thing that the Rutgers incident reminds us is that parents tend to give coaches tremendous power, influence and deference. When your children excel in sports, they may be presented with rare and unique opportunities. In your quest to raise self-confident, assertive, successful children, you must remember that it is possible to raise them to be respectful and coachable and still stand up for themselves and others when they see wrongdoing, even when there's risk of losing important opportunities. If the opportunities take precedence in your eyes, they will in your child's as well, and adult bullies will continue to abuse their power. When kids grow up feeling validated, and feeling that their instincts and opinions matter, they will be much better prepared—and empowered—to stand up to the next bully.

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