Unfortunately, bullying is a common occurrence in US schools. An estimated thirteen million children are going to be bullied this year. 40% of teachers consider bullying a moderate or major problem in their schools. An estimated 32% of students ages 12-18 report experiencing bullying, and 88% of children have observed it. Thus, the far majority of our children experience the effects of bullying, either as victims, bystanders, or perpetrators.
Bullying has 3 key elements:
• An intent to harm – physically (e.g. punching or pushing), verbally (e.g. teasing or name-calling), or socially (e.g. ostracizing or spreading hurtful rumors)
• A power imbalance
• Repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior
Despite an ever-growing awareness of bullying in our schools, the majority of children don’t talk about bullying with an adult when it happens. In a survey of US middle and high school students, “66 percent of victims of bullying believed school professionals responded poorly.” Shame, fear of not being believed, not wanting to bother or worry their parents, feeling that things won’t change, and thinking the adults’ advice would make the problem worse are all reasons children may give for not telling anyone when they experience bullying. With that in mind, it is very important that adults approach any discussion of bullying delicately and supportively, recognizing that a child may feel vulnerable discussing it, often perceiving such a conversation as involving some level of risk.
So how do I support my bullied child?
• Talk to your children about bullying before they talk to you about it. Give them a simple and straightforward definition of bullying. Help your children understand the distinctions between rude, mean, and bullying.
• Assure your children that you will always listen to any experiences and try to help. Listen empathically when they tell you stories. Those who have someone to talk with have a far greater chance of coping effectively, even if nothing can be done to change the circumstances.
• Encourage them to talk with their teacher, principal, and/or school counselor about their concerns. Bullies can be sneaky and often do most of their bullying where adults can’t see or hear it. And school staff might be able to help if they are informed of the problem. Tell your child that if someone is being physically hurt, school staff must always be informed immediately and every time.
• When your child is first dealing with a bully, encourage them to stand up straight and tall, look the bully in the eye, and in a strong voice say, “Leave me alone!” or “Stop it, I don’t like that!” This might be enough to make them stop.
• If firmly telling the bully to stop does not work, it is a great time to try to ignore. To be clear, “ignore” does not mean “do nothing.” In the context of bullying, it means to refrain from giving a verbal or physical response, to show as little emotion in front of the bully as possible, and, if possible, to try to walk away from the situation. Often, bullying behavior is reinforced because bullies feel a sense of power when their target responds with anger, tears, or any strong emotion. Encourage your child to share their feelings with you after the bullying incident; at home, tell them it is okay to yell or cry with you, a safe adult who can understand and help process their emotions, rather than with the bully, who may potentially try to use the emotion as a weapon against them.
• Encourage your child to find kind, supportive friends and to develop inner confidence and self-esteem. Encourage them to talk with their peers and to share experiences they have had with past bullies and to share advice about what might help. Encourage them to get more involved at school, to join an after school club, sports team, or music lessons.
• Finally, bullies are people too. I repeatedly find myself telling my young clients that I have talked to a lot of bullies in my years as a therapist, and that I have learned that bullies were typically victims of bullying before they were perpetrators. I heard it put quite simply recently: “Hurt people hurt people.” I sometimes ask kids to consider that many bullies have been treated very unkindly by older kids, siblings, and even grown-ups. Developing a sense of empathy and compassion for a bully can help a child gain a sense of confidence and self-esteem, knowing that they won’t “pass on the bullying,” as some other kids do.
It is important for us all to reflect upon and to work on changing our environments, such that our communities begin to more strongly discourage bullying. A community that values and rewards kindness provides a proper environment to nurture both the child who gets bullied and the child who bullies.
Some things that you can do to get the anti-bullying atmosphere started if you are concerned about bullying in your child’s life:
• Know your rights. 49 states now have anti-bullying legislation in place.
• Start an anti-bullying campaign or program
• Meet with other concerned families
• Ask that the school put formal disciplinary rules in place if none exist
• Educate others on the effects of bullying
To learn more about bullying and what you can do, visit The Bully Project at www.thebullyproject.com.
Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist