By Randy Taran

Parents, it’s time to smell the coffee. We’re trying to get the schools to teach our kids not to allow bullying, but the problems are escalating; it’s no longer enough to leave the responsibility in the schools’ hands. No parent wants their child to be bullied. And, no one intentionally teaches their child to become a bully. We all want the best for our kids. This is why it’s interesting to take a look at the subtle bullying messages that can come to them on two levels. Here are two powerful and often hidden ways to help nip the problem in the bud — right at home.

The first and most obvious level is how we treat others. It’s almost normal to see sarcastic laughter at someone else’s expense, the “us vs. them” way of thinking, our own pressure to act a certain way or else risk not being accepted. That in itself influences our children. So, what to do? The answer, of course, is the Golden Rule — treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Sounds good, but it only works if we are fully aware and mindful of what words and actions we are modeling.

Here’s a challenge: take one hour out of your day and just witness what you are saying, how you are saying it, and the feeling that it brings up in you and others as a result. This is a luxury that most people don’t allow themselves, and like wiping off your sunglasses to get a clearer picture, what you notice can be fascinating.

But there’s a second level, too, one we often don’t consider. Are you modeling bullying in how you treat yourself? If you mess up on something, do you ever call yourself an idiot? If you forget something important, do you say that you’ve lost your mind? If you gain a few pounds, do you say you feel disgusting or label yourself fat? All that seems benign, but it sends a message. Kids pick up on everything! Even small unconscious insinuations can be magnified more that we expect.

There is a biological reason for this. We all have mirror neurons (nerve cells) that fire either when a person acts or when they observe the same action performed by another. This means that if children see their parents being mean (to themselves or others), they are programmed by their neurons to imitate that. It’s a biological reaction for their neurons to fire in the same way. So parents have a huge role in influencing their children’s attitudes.

The media also has a tremendous impact on how we feel about ourselves. Just looking at magazines, TV shows and music creates ridiculous pressure on pre-teens and teens to look and act a certain way, so much so that if you don’t match the media’s ideal, then you can really feel badly about yourself. Let’s face it, even most grown women fixate on their “flaws” rather than celebrate what makes them unique. These messages are often passed on to our daughters, and sons, too, are not immune.

In the school environment, bullying enters the picture when young people try to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy by showing that they are “stronger” than someone else. Because a part of them feels bad about themselves, they try to reverse that feeling by treating someone else badly.

I just learned that my friend’s 14-year-old daughter is being bullied in her own car pool! She happens to be tall, slim and beautiful with long limbs. Still growing into her frame, every day she hears her “friends” making comments about how skinny she is, or how someone else who has the same top looks so much better in it. Other kids at school are being ostracized because they’re too big. And even the name-callers struggle with their body image. Rare is the person who is not sensitive to the slights and arrows of comparison with some external “ideal.” The “standards” of beauty that the media offers make most people feel bad! Getting into some physical activity like yoga, running, (whatever works) and seeing our bodies get stronger helps a lot. On the emotional side, getting to know our strengths and self-acceptance are powerful antidotes to any bully lurking in the wings.

The good news is that even in the media, there are signs of change. Marie Claire has a monthly feature called “What I Love About Me,” Katherine Schwarzenegger has a book out called “Rock What You’ve Got” and the DOVE campaign is blazing new trails. There’s actually a new club in my friend’s daughter’s school teaching students to appreciate their own bodies, no matter the physical dimensions. It happens that the whole car pool, even the girls who are behaving as bullies, decided to sign up for that club. This is good! As we learn to be more compassionate with ourselves, and to appreciate what makes us individually special and beautiful from the inside, we can do a lot to increase empathy and stop the bullying in its tracks.

Real strength is not in making someone else feel smaller; it’s rooted in being confident enough to be kind, uncovering what makes us unique and celebrating those qualities within ourselves and others. And it really helps to have some time to just observe our influences so that we can decide if they still suit us or not. If parents and kids can find some time to cultivate compassion for themselves, imagine what the mirror neurons would reflect.

One great way to deal with the bully inside is to find things that you are grateful for and appreciate about yourself. It could be anything: awesomely strong legs, beautiful eyes, a wild sense of humor or even a great smile. Focus on expanding that, and you may eventually turn that bully into a friend.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on bullying, as well as some of the things that you like or that amuse you about yourself.

Randy Taran is the founder of Project Happiness, a non-profit that empowers youth to create greater happiness in their lives and in the world. She is the co author, with Maria Lineger, of the “Project Happiness Handbook,” which makes the best of positive psychology, emotional intelligence and global literacy accessible to students in six countries.