By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
Bullying is essentially a pattern of repeated hurtful behavior toward others, generally with the bullying person having a power advantage over the target, in terms of age, size, gender, peer group status, or something else. It can take the form of repeated verbal teasing, spreading rumors, threats of harm, or actual physical aggression. Ostracizing or excluding others from social interactions is also a form of bullying. Bullying can have lasting effects on a child’s mental health and school performance.
Often bullying occurs out of sight of adults, which makes it harder for adults to intervene. It happens at lunch or during recess, when there is often less supervision. On the bus or at the bus stop are other common bullying locations. Finally, with kids’ use of social media and texting, bullying can go online (cyberbullying), which can be humiliating for kids and has even resulted in suicide in extreme cases. Furthermore, many kids do not want to report bullying, since they may be labeled a “snitch” for telling. This is one reason why many kids don’t tell adults, even their parents. Research also shows that very few kids intervene to stop bullying when they witness it.
According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 percent of students in grades 9–12 in the United States reported being bullied on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey. A majority of kids said they have witnessed bullying in their schools.
Warning Signs of Bullying
Parents and educators should be aware of signs that may indicate a child is being bullied. These may include sleep disturbance, reluctance or fear of going to school, unexplained injuries, “lost” or damaged belongings, isolation, stomachaches or headaches, or other sudden unexplainable changes in behavior. Paying attention to these signs is particularly important since bullying can be a risk factor for suicide.
What Makes Kids Bully
Kids who bully tend to be self-centered and often lack a sense of empathy. Some have been victims of bullying themselves (possibly by parents or siblings) and take out their anger on others. Others suffer from low self-esteem and try to make themselves feel better by putting down others, which can be a way of trying to impress friends. Also, kids who bully may have trouble interpreting others’ feelings and intentions. They enjoy seeing others upset by their actions, rather than feeling bad when they realize they are hurting someone with their actions.
Helping Kids Who Are Being Bullied
First, it is important to validate the feelings of the child being bullied. If kids don’t think you are taking them seriously, they likely won’t seek out an adult for help in the future. Thank them for coming to you. Find out how often the bullying is occurring. Kids teasing other kids once or twice is different from repeated taunting, which is considered bullying.
Ask students being bullied how they have tried handling it so far. If they are reporting the bullying, chances are they have tried to stop it but have been unable to do so. Any threats of physical harm should be dealt with immediately. The child doing the bullying should be spoken to, parents should be notified, and both the bullying child and his or her parents should be aware of the consequences should the harassment continue.
While telling kids to ignore teasing is a common strategy, it’s easier said than done. Words can hurt a lot. Still, ignoring name-calling can be a good first step. Walking away is sometimes helpful, as is having a response already rehearsed. Saying, “I’ll think about that” or asking questions such as “What do you mean?” or “Why do you care?” can be a way of disarming someone who is bullying. The book Bullying Is a Pain in the Brain is an excellent resource for kids.
While teasing and conflict are a part of many kids’ lives, bullying takes these to a higher level. Given the lasting effects of bullying, it is essential that parents and teachers intervene early to prevent bullying as much as possible. Educating kids about bullying is a first step. Encouraging kids to come forward if they are being bullied or if they witness bullying is also important. Increasing supervision of students and knowing what to look for can help prevent bullying, or at least catch it early before it becomes a pattern of behavior.
Encourage kids to avoid being alone so they are less easy to target. Closer monitoring by teachers often helps deter bullying or helps them catch it when it happens. Use of security cameras can help as well, since many schools and even buses now have them. Close monitoring of areas such as stairwells and playgrounds is essential, since these less-supervised areas can be frequent locations for bullying.
Spending classroom time talking with students about bullying is important. This should be an ongoing discussion, not just a one-time lecture. Asking kids how often they observe bullying, how they feel when they see it, and what options they have for intervening can all be helpful. Role-playing in class can help kids practice skills needed to respond to bullying constructively.
Finally, intervening to prevent bullying should not only focus on punishing offenders. That does not teach them to stop. Rather, education is critical. Understanding why some kids resort to bullying can help educators and parents intervene. Kids can be taught to be more empathetic. When adults set an example of kindness and inclusiveness and actively work toward instilling those qualities in the students they oversee, the likelihood of bullying decreases.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is one way to improve relationships among children as well as between students and teachers. SEL involves teaching kids skills such as managing emotions, interacting appropriately with others, asserting oneself, understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, and resolving conflict. More school systems are implementing these principles, which not only improve students’ interactions, but can also improve their academic performance. One resource for more information on this approach is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Mutual respect is also key, and parents and educators must model respect if they expect their students to treat one another with respect. Yelling, making fun of students, and embarrassing them in front of others teach kids that it’s okay to treat others this way.
Other Sources for Help
Fortunately, there are many resources available for parents, educators, and kids about dealing with bullying. One such resource is the US government site StopBullying.gov. Another is PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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