AN INTRODUCTION TO BULLYING
What is bullying? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”
Here are terms frequently used when discussing the topic of bullying:
Bully – the person perpetuating the actions (the taunter, the pusher, the one posting online).
Victim – the person on the receiving end of these actions (the taunted, the pushed; sometimes referred to as the target).
Bystander – someone who witnesses a bullying event. This person may or may not do anything about what they are seeing.
Active bystanders get involved. Passive bystanders just watch or walk away choosing to ignore the problem. Being a passive bystander is sometimes seen (by both bully and victim) as support for the bully. Being an active bystander has been shown to be an effective method for reducing bullying behaviors.
Bystander Effect is a social reaction wherein the bystanders each defer responsibility to act (either knowingly or unknowingly) to others in the crowd, thereby resulting in a lack of action overall by any of the bystanders because each assumes someone else has, or will do, “something.”
There are also several types of bullying:
Physical – hitting, pushing, kicking, etc. This also includes damage or destruction of property.
Verbal – name calling, teasing, spreading rumors, etc.; using words to hurt someone.
Emotional – making someone feel bad about themselves; manipulation; making someone feel isolated, encouraging others to ignore or not be friendly towards a certain person.
Cyberbullying – bullying that occurs online. It could happen in chat rooms, in private messages, on social media and through e-mail. This form of bullying can be harder to identify and prevent due to the private/ direct nature of many forms of communication on the Internet.
Many of us, at some point in our lives, have been on the receiving end of someone’s unpleasant actions. Maybe your sibling taunted you relentlessly for a bad haircut you got that one time; or the kid at school posts cruel things about you online, someone gets beat up multiple times for being new. In any case someone made you feel devalued in some way.
So how do you tell the difference between teasing and bullying? Is there a difference? When does it go from “just a joke” to bullying? It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes, but here are some ways to tell if the behavior is true bullying:
Is there an imbalance of power, either real or perceived?
Is one person holding something over the other person? “Power” in this instance can be anything that one person uses to control another person. Power could be something physical such as size, strength, etc., but it can also be less tangible, like popularity or social status.
Is the behavior intentional and recurring?
Sometimes we can be thoughtless and say or do things that make others feel “less than.” While it may not have been our intention to hurt someone, that doesn’t change the fact that someone was hurt in some way. In those unintentional instances, we apologize and take responsibility for our actions.
In other instances, someone intentionally does something to cause another person to feel negatively. This person is not interested in taking responsibility for his or her action, may not feel remorse, and may threaten to or actually repeat the behavior – particularly if the person gets the reaction he or she is looking for (they get attention, the child cries, other children laugh, etc.).
If you discover that your child is involved in bullying (on either end), how should you respond? This question is difficult to answer because each child requires individual lessons depending on their disposition, life experiences to date, and coping skills.
It is important to remember that bullying is a set of behaviors, not a type of personality, and behaviors can be changed. A child who is bullying now doesn’t always have to be a bully, and a child that is being bullied can learn to stand up for him or herself and others.
There are steps you can take to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, bullying behaviors:
Model behavior that you would be proud to see your child imitate.
Children are sponges and often imitate behaviors they’ve seen others do. By providing a good example, especially during difficult times, it demonstrates to your children that there are ways to handle emotions that don’t involve hurting others.
Role play different scenarios.
Help your child view the situation as if they were the recipient of the behaviors they’ve been exhibiting, or a bystander that’s just witnessed the event.
Talk about the emotions that each person could be feeling and discuss if that is what they intended when they acted. Ask what they would think about the “bully” from each point of view, then discuss in what ways and why those viewpoints would be different.
Discuss how to be a good friend and an active bystander. Encourage children to get to know the new kid, accept people that aren’t exactly like them, be helpful, and above all, be kind. Before you act, think about whether or not you would want someone to do to you what you are about to do to someone else.
Teach children that it’s OK to stand up for themselves and for others if the situation doesn’t feel right. Sometimes knowing that just one other person will stand up for you gives you strength and increases your feeling of being valued.
Teach the difference between telling an adult and tattling.
Tattling is done specifically to get someone in trouble, regardless of the actual situation. Telling an adult about a situation that is out of your control (students are fighting, someone is injured, etc.) is being responsible, being kind, and being an active bystander. Wanting to help someone is very different than trying to get someone in trouble. The difference is intention.
Use your school counselor!
Many times children can voice anonymous complaints (if they feel there may be retaliation or they are not sure if what they saw or experienced was true bullying) to the school counselor if the events take place at school or school events. The counselor is there to help and can provide resources for a number of situations that may arise.
Remind them of any similar experiences you may have seen or experienced.
Discuss what each person in the situation could be feeling and why. Understanding emotions is crucial for a number of social situations; having a good understanding of their own emotions, and how to control them, will serve them well in all areas of their life.
Encourage and reinforce positive growth.
Even if your child makes slow progress away from bullying behaviors, they are still trying. Changing behaviors, especially if they’ve become habits, can be difficult. Praise them for making good choices in the moment and in front of others when appropriate. Some children do not like the attention; you are the expert on your child, use praise that works for them. Let them know you appreciate their effort.
Tell them how proud you are of them.
Tell them you are proud of them for wanting to grow as a person, or for being strong during a rough time. Just as flowers need extra protection, love, and support during difficult weather, children also need protection, love, and support during difficult times. In order to grow strong, sometimes we must weather a storm or two. That doesn’t mean our worth is diminished. It means that we were strong enough to make it through. Rainstorms don’t last forever, and neither will the situation.
If your child is being bullied, assure them that it is not their fault.
It’s important that your child know that someone is choosing to hurt them. None of us can control the actions of another person, only our own. How we react is our choice. Knowing how to approach any number of complex topics with your children can be daunting, but having open and honest conversations with your children fosters trust that facilitates future conversations, helps them learn to make their own decisions and to learn from their mistakes, and encourages feeling secure in their own abilities.
Encourage them to tell you about their day – the good and the bad.
Talk about feelings they had throughout the day. Validate their feelings – it shows that you are really listening to, and are interested in, what they have to say (“I understand how that could make you feel ___, when something like that happens to me, even as an adult, it makes me feel ____.”)
It’s important for children to be able to discuss their feelings in an open way without judgment. We all have feelings as humans, we deserve to express them, and each of us deserves to feel and be respected. Kindness goes a long way, especially when applied generously.
Resources for Parents:
PACER (founder of National Bullying Prevention Month) has an amazing set of websites that are full of resources about bullying for children of all ages. Start here: http://www.pacer.org/bullying/
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has a website with great information and resources: http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/index.html
The It Gets Better Project provides information and support to students that identify as LGBT and their families: http://www.itgetsbetter.org
Be well and happy researching!