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 two experts, Drexel University professor and director of the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence Charles Williams (aka Dr. Chuck) and clinical psychologist and author John Mayer, 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 doesn’t mean it’s not happening. In 2007 almost a third of middle and high schoolers reported that they’d been bullied at school. And those are the ones who admitted it. “It’s one of those silent issues,” Williams says. Many kids don’t speak up because they think that 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 always includes physical aggression
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 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 a recent survey:
• 21% said they had been called names, insulted, or made fun of
• 18% reported being the subject of rumors
• 11% said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on
• 6% said they were threatened with harm
• 4% said they were made to do things they didn’t want to do
• 4% said their property was destroyed on purpose
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 more recently (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, adding that the aggression could be inspired by the bully’s lack of confidence and feelings of physical inadequacy.
“Bullying is mostly psychological,” Williams says. Girls report being bullied more than boys — and they’re more often victimized by passive aggressive behavior or social aggression over physical harm. “If you think about it, a small girl on the cheerleading team could be a school’s biggest bully (pun intended),” Williams says.
Myth #4: There’s one clear way to solve the problem
Because bullying scenarios vary so widely, no single response can be prescribed. The complicated truth is that different situation — 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. Mayer compares it to an arms race, with the weapons just getting bigger and more destructive. Instead, he 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.
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 and the situation. “It’s safe to assume that the child who is more confidently able to defend him or herself is probably less likely to be a target of bullying,” Williams says. So simply telling a scared child to fight back isn’t enough. Ultimately, it’s about safety. Williams advises parents to tell their children to report bullying to an adult — particularly at school. “However, in a case where the bully will not listen to reason and where adults abdicate responsibility, appropriate self-defense has to be considered – and available to a child as a viable option,” he says.
Before this option is exercised, however, Williams says parents and caregivers need to carefully consider their position and communicate it clearly to their child. “A child should never feel conflicted about self-defense,” he says. Martial arts and boxing training are two great ways to help a child prepare for — or even prevent — being victimized by a bully. “Beyond physical preparedness, martial arts and boxing training give children the mental confidence and posturing necessary to project a sense of being in control.”
Myth #5: Bullies come from the top of the social pecking order
“Clearly, 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.”
Both Mayer and Williams agree that bullying is most often motivated by a desire for social power. “Developmentally speaking, social standing is huge for children and youth,” Williams says. “In fact, by the time they reach adolescence, it can have more influence than, say, the role of a parent. Bullying controls and manipulates the social order; and this is exactly what the bully seeks to accomplish.” Often, this means the bully is a social climber, seeking to increase his or her status. But when a child does seem to be popular, Williams warns, their social status may shield them from consequences — both from other kids and adults. “It lends itself to a type of social Darwinism thinking,” he says.
Commonly, Mayer says, kids who bully are often victims of abuse themselves or are going through difficult problems at home. They may even have cognitive disorders that impair their impulse control. “Something is wrong with that kid in that time of their life,” Mayer says. It doesn’t mean all bullies will turn into criminals, he says, but at that time they are trying to wield power in an inappropriate way. The kid who bullies feels a lack of control in his or her own life.
Often issues at home, such as divorce, abuse, or violence, leave children feeling helpless. Kids who bully don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with that powerlessness. So what do they do? Get power the only way they can. Or as Williams puts it: “Hurt people hurt people.” School administrators who understand this can address bullying more effectively by counseling bullies as well as victims.
Myth #6: Parental attitudes have no effect on bullying
In fact, parents can help pave the way for bullying behavior in kids when they don’t 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.”
“Kids pick up on those things,” says Williams. “They learn that people have more or less value.” 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
“Parent-to-parent meetings can get nasty,” says Williams, who advises parents of victims to refrain from contacting bullies’ parents. The situation, already fraught with emotion, often gets only more heated when parents leap into the fray. (But if parents insist on talking with each other, Williams suggests they use a mediator.)
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 and together figure out the next steps.
Myth #8: Boys are more likely to be bullied
In a 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.
“In a way, it’s easier [to do] because it’s not direct,” Williams says. And because it’s so easy to spread a rumor or make threats, 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, and moody and 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, and YouTube — which ups the harassment and humiliation with even more hurtful, and possibly fatal, results.
All the more reason to stop bullying before it goes viral, Williams says. If adults are vigilant and stop the bullying at school, it may never get to the cyber stage. And if your child is being bullied online? Don’t brush it off. Report it to the school, and if physical threats have been made, get copies of the messages 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.
Cyber bullying is on the rise. In a recent 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, just two years prior.
Myth #10: Parents are always their kids’ best defender
They should be, but they are not. Too often, Williams says he sees parents who dismiss their children’s reports of being teased and taunted. “You’d be surprised at how adults respond. They tell their kids to stop tattling or stop whining.” Teachers and other school leaders have also dismissed the problem, says Williams, often with tragic results.
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: When bullies use homophobic taunts they’re always referring to the victim’s sexual orientation
Increasingly, bullies 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.”
Even in the later teens, when kids do understand the meaning, it can be used solely as a slur. “It is often used as the sort of nuclear option as it relates to male-to-male social aggression or put downs,” Williams says. “The mere insinuation is enough to cause the social harm intended by the bully.”
But Williams warns that 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, he urges parents (with the help and possible presence of a mental health professional) to discuss sexuality and gender with their child. “It is my sense that the child who is struggling with sexuality and gender identity, but who is simultaneously receiving support on the home front, may be better equipped to navigate the treacherous waters known as childhood – particularly in a school environment, where 79 percent of reported bullying takes place.” In fact, 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 bear no clear responsibility for bullying
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.