Not a day goes by without another gut-wrenching tale of bullying making headlines. Schoolyards erupt in violence. Social media sites turn into cyber lynch mobs. Kids commit suicide after enduring months of abuse. Despite all the media attention, parents often remain in the dark about what actions to take when it happens to their children — or when their children bully others.
What can parents really do? What are the signs to watch for? How do you distinguish garden-variety personality conflicts between kids (which may include some mean behavior) from actual bullying? We contacted clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Creating a Safe and Welcoming School and multiple memos on bullying and teasing, to clear up the the common misconceptions about bullying and give parents the facts.
Myth #1: You’ll know when your child is being bullied
Just because your child doesn’t tell you he or she is being bullied, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. According to the 2011
School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 28 percent of middle and high schoolers reported that they’d been bullied. According to a large 2007 survey “Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff”, 49 percent of kids in grades 4 through 12 reported being bullied. And in both reports, those are the kids who admitted it. Many kids don’t speak up because they think it will lead to more abuse, because they’re ashamed, and because of the powerful unwritten code against snitching.
If your child comes home with torn clothing; starts complaining about going to school; has unexplained bruises, cuts, and scratches; or seems depressed and socially isolated, these are signs of bullying. If you suspect bullying, keep talking with your child and go to the school for help and input. Talk with your child’s teacher, a school administrator, or a school counselor to notify them of any problems, ask if they’ve noticed any incidents, and work with them to deal with the problem sooner rather than later.
Myth #2: Bullying is always physical
Bullying is when one child regularly harasses another child. This could be verbal bullying, like name-calling, teasing, and using threatening language. It can also be physical abuse, like punching, shoving, hitting, and spitting. It can be electronic, too, via texting, social media, apps, and the internet. There is a gray area, however, that is important for parents to understand. Is it bullying when a child is excluded from a game? Not necessarily, but if your child is regularly left out, by all means talk with the teacher. (Check out the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program for a more detailed explanation of bullying.)
Here are the types of harassment students reported in the large 2007 survey, according to Stopbullying.gov:
- 44.2% were called names or insulted
- 43.3% were teased
- 36.3% were the subject of rumors
- 32.4% were pushed or shoved
- 29.2% were hit, slapped, or kicked
- 28.5% were excluded
- 27.4% were threatened
- 27.3% had their belongings stolen
- 23.7% had sexual comments or gestures directed at them
- 9.9% were cyber bullied
Myth #3: The bully is always bigger
Despite media depictions from the ’80s (Biff from Back to the Future), ’90s (Nelson from The Simpsons), and the early 2000s (Dave Karofsky from Glee), bullies aren’t necessarily large kids who pack a powerful punch. “Physical size is really inconsequential when it comes to this issue,” Mayer says. Bullying is often about power, and a child who bullies is often trying to counteract something that’s going wrong (real or perceived) in his own life. “In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that a bully is typically smaller,” Mayer says. Aggression could be inspired by the bully’s lack of confidence and feelings of physical inadequacy. Aso, girls report being bullied more than boys — and they’re more often victimized by passive-aggressive behavior or social aggression.
Myth #4: Fighting back works AND Fighting back doesn’t work
Because bullying scenarios vary so widely, no single response can be prescribed. The complicated truth is that different situations — and different kids — call for different actions. The key is thinking about these actions (and reactions) and discussing them with your child.
The case against fighting back:
Everything we know is that the ultimate right thing to do is to ignore the bully. Turn your back on the teasing and bullying and it’ll go away,” Mayer says. “That follows Psych 101 principles.” He insists an eye-for-an-eye response is ultimately ineffective and often hurts far more than it helps. Why? Although hitting back might bring a moment of satisfaction, it can lead to escalation — which, in light of reports of kids bringing weapons to school, could put both the bully and the bullied in mortal danger. Instead, Mayer recommends discussing these possible strategies with your child:
- Tell an adult. Whether it’s a parent, teacher, or a coach, your child should tell an authority figure who can make sure the bully faces consequences. “Teach kids to inform an adult so that the bully will be restrained and face consequences,” he says. Ideally, if the rules of society are enforced against the bully, it should put an end to the behavior. “It’s a higher form of fighting back,” Mayer says.
- Don’t react. Encourage your child not to cry, stop walking, or acknowledge the bully in any way. “This can be super-hard to teach kids, but it’s what works,” Mayer says. If your child responds, the bully will feed on it. By leaving the bully hanging, she or he will end up looking silly.
- Consider the consequences. Does your child’s school have a zero-tolerance policy? If so, your child could be punished (even suspended) for self-defense. This consequence might seem unfair to children and parents alike — and, depending on how it is implemented at your child’s school, may be something you should consider discussing with school administrators.
Myth #5: Bullies are the most popular kids
“Social gain is at the root of 95 percent of bullying,” Mayer says. So the idea that the bully is “on top” is “almost nonsense,” he says. Why? “If they were at the top, they wouldn’t be as motivated toward bullying behavior.”
However, this may be a matter of perception. The bully is a social climber, seeking to increase his or her status. But that social climber may seem relatively popular. And their relative social status may shield them from consequences — both from other kids and adults.
Myth #6: Parents have nothing to do with their kids bullying
Parents often pave the way for bullying behavior by failing to teach their children to respect differences in people. Some parents may pay lip service to the idea that all people are equal, but if their actions reveal a different attitude, their kids will pick up on it. If parents talk disparagingly about other groups of people or tell racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes, the message they’re sending is: “All people are not alike, and some are better than others.” So be aware of what you say at home — and how it can translate into aggression in your child at school.
Myth #7: If your child is a victim, call the bully’s parents
Experts say parents of kids who are bullied should not contact the bully’s parents. The situation, already emotional and difficult, often gets worse when parents leap into the fray. Instead, start with the school. Most schools have an anti-bullying policy that outlines the steps for dealing with bullies. Talk with the teacher and principal first. Then figure out the next steps together.
Myth #8: Boys are more likely to be bullied
In the large 2007 survey, almost 34 percent of girls reported being bullied, compared with 31 percent of boys. Although boys often bully in a physical way, girls’ style of bullying tends to be more indirect. Girls bully by creating a hostile environment for their victims; they may spread rumors or exclude their targets from activities. Mean-girl bullying can do a lot of damage — without the physical clues for parents to pick up on. If your daughter is acting sad, depressed, moody, or is reluctant to go to school, talk to her about bullying.
Myth #9: Cyber bullying is the gateway to other bullying
Actually, most bullying starts with face-to-face encounters and later may progress to texting, social media, apps, and YouTube — which ups the harassment and humiliation with even more hurtful, and possibly fatal, results. In a 2011 study of digital abuse by AP and MTV, 56 percent of teens and young adults ages 14 to 24 reported being bullied through social and digital media — up from 50 percent in 2009. But if adults are vigilant and stop the bullying at school, it may never get to the cyber stage.
If your child is being bullied online? Don’t brush it off. Report it to the school, and if physical threats have been made, take screenshots of the mean messages or any threats and report them to the police. Also, encourage your child to come to you if he or she sees cyber bullying happening to another kid.
Myth #10: Parents are always their kids’ best defender
They should be, but they often are not. Parents may dismiss their children’s reports of being teased and taunted. Teachers and other school leaders have also dismissed the problem. Mayer says the only way to stop bullying is for adults to play an active role and take complaints about bullying seriously. Parents need to set consequences when they see or hear about their own children’s aggression, including bullying among siblings. “Parents have to stop the behavior from the start,” he says. “They can’t tolerate it at home or with anyone in the family.”
As for parents of the victims, explain that “there is something wrong” with the child who is bullying their kids. Victims are suffering from regular abuse and their self-esteem has been chipped away, while their sense of powerlessness has sky-rocketed. They need all the reassurance they can get that this isn’t their fault — they didn’t cause the problem. “Make sure your child knows they are not the problem,” says Mayer. “They’re not damaged. The other kid is.”
Myth #11: Homophobic taunts refer to the victim’s sexual orientation
Bullies sometimes taunt other kids by calling them “gay,” even though neither party actually knows what the word means — especially in the younger grades. “This is where parental and social modeling come into effect,” Mayer says. Kids hear the word used as a put down, and they repeat it. “They’re mimicking language,” he says, “it’s not being used in the sexual connotation.”
A sexually confused child — of any age — may be a more likely target for harassment and bullying. And although it may be a challenging conversation, experts urge parents (with the help and possible presence of a mental health professional) to discuss sexuality and gender with their child. Research by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University demonstrates that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth with families who accept their sexual orientation are less likely to suffer depression, use drugs, or attempt suicide than youth who are rejected by their families.
Myth #12: Schools aren’t responsible for bullying
Bullying is a national issue, so much so that every state has anti-bully laws that define bullying and require schools to act when it’s reported. Even so, some schools still aren’t taking it seriously, Mayer says. And this is not just a problem but a crisis, since most bullying happens at school. “Teachers have to take these things seriously,” he says. “They have to identify the bullies and tell them, ‘We’re watching you.’”
Parents should check that their kids’ school has an anti-bully policy and system in place. If you’re unsure what your school’s policy is, talk with the administration or check the school’s website. Let the school know that the safety of your child is important to you.
The case for fighting back:
In some scenarios, “fighting back” in the form of verbal retorts and, when warranted, physical force can put an end to bullying. But it’s important to consider the child, the situation, and the consequences (see above). Simply telling a scared child to fight back isn’t enough. Ultimately, it’s about safety. Martial arts and boxing training are two great ways to help a child prepare for — or even prevent — being victimized by a bully.