News stories about children and teens being bullied seem to play out in a never-ending scenario. We may be sitting at dinner, having left the television on, and we hear about some tragedy involving bullying of a high school teen that has resulted in the teen taking his or her own life. Bullying, it seems, is everywhere around us. But what are we supposed to do about it? Can we, in fact, stop bullying?
The answers are not easy, since there is no single cause for bullying. And the problem is both complex and widespread, so there’s also that to contend with. The solution to ending bullying requires a concerted and ongoing effort on the part of parents, educators, lawmakers and other adults.
But it can be done. Here are some ways to approach a focused effort to end bullying, once and for all.
Before we can begin to address the subject of how to stop bullying, it’s important to understand what bullying is all about. Is it simple teasing of one child by another? Is it when a group of children or teens gang up and escalate a simple remark meant in jest to one that becomes hurtful and traumatizing?
The answer from experts is that bullying is any unwanted and aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or a perceived imbalance of power. This behavior is then repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over a period of time. Some of the elements of bullying include making threats against another, spreading rumors about another child or teen, physically or verbally attacking someone, and even intentionally and deliberately excluding a child or teen from a group.
It is important to keep in mind that as very young children, ages three to five, are attempting to learn how to get along with their peers, to share and participate in group activities, to understand and express their feelings, they may act out or have a tantrum if they don’t get what they want immediately. They may act in an aggressive manner if they are angry or afraid. But this is not bullying. Still, it is something that parents and other adult caregivers should pay attention to and help the youngster find more appropriate ways of interacting with other children and to express their feelings in healthy and unhurtful ways.
On the other hand, bullying on the part of school-aged children that continues into early adulthood takes on new and potentially more negative consequences. For one thing, bullying behavior by college students and young adults may be considered crimes in some states and under federal law, subjecting the perpetrator to prosecution and possible jail time.
Some other behaviors that are not bullying deserve mention here as well.
- Peer conflict – It is inevitable that children may experience a disagreement with each other over any little thing. It could be an unwillingness to share toys or to argue with another over something. This is not bullying, as long as there is no perceived power imbalance. But getting past the argument or fight may require the intervention and mediation of other peers or some other type of conflict resolution.
- Harassment – What if someone is harassing another teen? Is that considered bullying? After all, it is unwanted and undesired behavior. In fact, harassment and bullying are often talked about in the same context, but the truth is that not all harassment is bullying, just as all bullying does not constitute harassment. Federal civil rights laws stipulate that harassment is conduct that is unwelcome based on a protected class – such as race, religion, color, sex, age, disability or national origin – and is severe, pervasive and persistent, and that creates a hostile environment.
- Teen dating violence – This is intimate partner violence that occurs between two teens who are now in, or once were in, a relationship.
- Gang violence – This relates to aggressive behavior and violence within or between gangs. In and of itself, it is not bullying, although one gang member can bully another within the group without it escalating to violence. There are specialized approaches that can be adopted to deal with aggression and violence in gangs.
- Stalking – The term stalking refers to repeated threatening or harassing behavior and includes such actions as following a person, making harassing phone calls, or damaging property that belongs to the stalked individual.
- Hazing – Activities that are embarrassing and often illegal and/or dangerous are sometimes used to initiate a member into a group.
- Workplace bullying – Yes, adults can be subjected to a type of bullying as well, although the term bullying generally refers to behavior between children of school age. We all know of or have experienced a situation where adults become aggressive and exert their use of power over another person in the workplace. But adults also have a number of different laws applicable to them that do not apply to children.
Cyberbullying – A New Threat
With the proliferation of smartphones and iPads and Wi-Fi enabling Internet access virtually anywhere, anytime, a new form of bullying known as cyberbullying has emerged. And it’s becoming more widespread and increasingly dangerous. In the simplest terms, this is bullying that takes place using electronic technology – those cell phones, tablets, PCs and laptops, as well as social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, text messages, chat rooms, and websites where messages can be posted and replied to.
Cyberbullying has gained prominence in the news because kids who are bullied in person are also often victims of cyberbullying as well. How does cyberbullying work? What examples are there that we can be on the lookout for? Cyberbullying can be a mean message in an email or text, embarrassing pictures, videos websites, or fake profiles, and rumors that are sent and spread on social media sites.
There’s a big problem with cyberbullying in that it goes on 24 hours a day, even when a child is home alone and should be protected within the safety of the family domicile. The cyber bully can be anonymous and thus difficult to track. And messages, photos, videos and texts may be extremely tough to delete and get rid of once they’ve been posted or sent.
Any child or teen who is the victim of cyberbullying is also more likely to use alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism, experience bullying in person, to skip school or be consistently tardy, express an unwillingness to go to school at all, to suffer a drop in grades, have lower self-esteem and to have health problems.
How widespread is the problem of cyberbullying? Statistics from the 2008-2009 School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics) indicated that 6 percent of students in grades six through 12 experience cyberbullying.
Clearly, more needs to be done to protect our children from this pervasive and ever-present threat.
Who’s Really at Risk of Bullying?
As previously mentioned, there is no single reason why one person is bullied over another. Bullying can take place anywhere and at anytime. But, depending on the child’s environment, some groups may be at more of a disadvantage when it comes to bullying. These include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) youth, children and teens with disabilities, and youth that are socially isolated.
Youth who are bullied have one or more of the following risk factors.
- Such children may be perceived as different from others-overweight or underweight, coming from a different school, wearing glasses, having the “wrong” kind of clothes, talking differently or with an accent, not considered “cool” by the in-power group at school.
- At risk youth may not get along well with others, behave in a manner that other children see as annoying, provoking, or antagonistic.
- Such youth may be seen as weak, so unable to defend themselves that they’re an easy target for attack.
- At risk youth are frequently depressed, have low esteem, or are anxious.
Experts say that there are two types of youth that seek to bully others. The first type is youth who are well-connected to their peers, who have a measure of social power within that group, tend to be overly concerned about how popular they are, and tend to dominate or control others. The second type is youth who are more isolated from their peers, have low self-esteem, could be depressed and/or anxious, are less involved in school, have difficulty relating to other kids’ emotions or feelings, and are easily pressured by their peers.
And, children who engage in bullying others also have one or more of these characteristics: they have a hard time following rules; they think badly of others; they are friends with others who also bully; have little or no positive parental influence at home; are easily frustrated and quick to anger, and view violence as a solution that is positive.
Recognize Bullying Warning Signs
How do you, as parents or concerned caregivers, know that your child or teen is either a bully or a victim of bullying? There are warning signs to watch out for.
Signs a child is being bullied include:
- Unexplained and/or frequent injuries
- Lost items, damaged or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, toys, jewelry and other personal items
- Falling grades, poor performance in school, not wanting to go to school, loss of interest in school activities
- Feelings of decreased self-esteem and hopelessness
- Frequent bouts of illness, headaches, stomach aches, feeling sick and faking illness
- Frequent nightmares and/or trouble sleeping
- Changes in eating habits – eating too much at one time (bingeing), or not having enough to eat (coming home from school hungry because they were afraid to eat during school lunchtime)
- Abrupt loss of friends or sudden avoidance of certain social situations
- Acting in a reckless and self-destructive manner-running away from home, harming themselves, talking about committing suicide
Signs a child or teen may be a bully include:
- Acting in an increasingly aggressive manner
- Not taking responsibility for their actions
- Highly competitive and/or worrying about their popularity and/or reputation
- Always blaming others for their problems
- Getting into physical and/or verbal confrontations
- Being frequently sent to the principal’s office or to detention
- Having friends who bully others
- Suddenly acquiring unexplained amounts of cash, gifts or new belongings
Why don’t kids who are bullied just ask for help? The statistics again are revealing, as well as unsettling. According to the previously mentioned report, adults were notified of bullying in only about a third of the cases. Kids have many reasons for not telling their parents about bullying behavior they’ve experienced. Here are just a few of them:
- Kids are afraid of reprisals – the bully will retaliate with even more vicious attacks if the child tells on him or her.
- A bullied child may be fearful of being rejected by their peers, cast out of the group, and have no hope of ever joining the group. Friends serve as protection from bullies. If the bullied child is rejected by his or her peers, there’s no perceived protection from the bully. This often results in a natural inclination of the child to keep the bullying from their parents.
- The bullied child doesn’t want to feel helpless and may try to handle the situation themselves. They want to feel like they’re in control and don’t want to be seen by others as either weak or a tattletale.
- Bullying is a humiliating experience for the child, one that he or she doesn’t want to relate to their parents. They not only don’t want their parents to know what is being said or done to them, but they also are afraid their parents will see them as weak, maybe even punish them for not standing up to the bully.
- Already feeling socially isolated as a result of the bullying, the child may begin to feel like no one cares or understands what’s going on with them. How can they talk with their parents about it?
Preventing Bullying – What Can be Done
There is no question that parents, educators, caregivers and other adults have a role to play in preventing bullying, as well as stopping bullying that exists.
While it takes time and needs to be repeated, talking to kids about bullying is the first step in preventing or stopping it. Kids need to know that bullying is simply unacceptable, that it is never okay to bully-for any reason. Talking with kids about bullying also includes helping them learn how to safely stand up to bullying, and how to ask for help from parents and adults if bullying occurs.
It’s vitally important to have an open and ongoing dialogue with our children so that they know they can talk with us about anything that’s bothering them at any time. Check in, daily, to ask about your child’s day, what’s going on, what they’re interested in. In other words, keep involved, keep the lines of communication open, so that your child feels welcome to discuss any matter with you.
Be sure to encourage activities and pastimes that your children enjoy. When kids are doing what they love, they develop stronger self-esteem and are better able to both make new friends and be able to protect themselves from becoming victims of bullying.
Show by example that appropriate behavior means always treating others with respect and kindness. Your children will pick up on this like radar and will hopefully emulate your modeling behavior.
Stop Bullying on the Spot
When you, as parents or caregivers or other adults, see bullying behavior, intervene and stop it on the spot. There’s absolutely no excuse to allow it to go on unchallenged. If you are reluctant to do so alone, ask another adult to help you stop the bullying behavior.
The idea is to separate the bully from the bullied, to make sure everyone is safe and protected. If there is any need for medical assistance or intervention of the authorities, get it. It is also wise to reassure the kids, and any bystanders, involved. This means you have to remain calm. And, when you are intervening in bullying to put a stop to it, be sure that you act in a manner that is respectful, yet firm, and in charge. You want to model appropriate behavior, not go off on a tirade to the bully.
Things to avoid, according to experts, include not trying to figure out all the facts about what happened, at least, not immediately. Don’t force other kids to say publicly what they saw and heard. Never ignore the situation, thinking that the kids will just be able to work it out on their own without any adult intervention or assistance. That never happens. It’s also vital not to question the kids in the presence of each other, or in front of other children who may have witnessed the bullying. And do not try to make the children involved-the bully and the bullied-apologize to each other or try to patch up their differences.
When do you find out what happened? Again, it doesn’t happen on the spot. Whether you’ve just stopped the bullying on the spot or if your child or a child has reported bullying they’ve experienced to you, you do need to attempt to determine the facts of the occurrence.
Getting the facts means keeping all the children involved separate. Find out what happened from several sources, including adults and other children. Listen without any judgmental responses or facial or bodily indications. Don’t call the incident bullying when trying to get the facts.
Once you have all the facts, now it’s time to review what happened and look at it carefully to determine if it is, indeed, bullying. State law and school policy may help you classify if what happened constitutes bullying or not, but there are some questions to consider when trying to make your determination.
Look at the history of the kids involved. Have there been instances of this type of behavior before? Do the kids have a history of fighting or other conflict? Is one of the kids worried that this will happen again? Does the targeted child feel a loss of control, like there’s been a power imbalance? If the child indicates feeling this way, it’s likely that there has been a shift of power. Also seek to determine, if you can, if the kids have dated (teen dating violence), or if they are members of a gang.
Supporting Kids Who Are Involved
Remember back when you were a child and then a teen? It is important to keep in mind that all children will witness or be involved in bullying of one sort or another at some point in their lives. They may be the bullies, or the bullied, or see one of their friends or someone else bullying another. Kids involved in bullying need the support of parents, caregivers, educators and others.
For the kids who have been bullied, it’s important to listen to them, to reassure them that the bullying wasn’t their fault, and to understand that it may be tough for them to talk about what happened. Get help for the child to deal with the bullying, including getting them in to see the school counselor, school psychologist, or other mental health individual.
Role-playing how to act in case a bullying situation reoccurs, helping to protect the bullied child and resolving the situation, being persistent and following-up is also vital in supporting kids who are involved in bullying.
For more information on how to address bullying at the school level and with other parents, go to StopBullying.gov. This site has much helpful information, as well as links to other useful resources.
Bottom line: We can stop bullying. But it does take a concerted effort on the part of many individuals, an effort that is committed to stopping bullying and helping our children to remain safe and protected during their childhood years.