BULLYING: What is it? Can it be prevented? What can we do?

What do you do when your child refuses to go to school? Or when your child comes home on the bus with unexplained injuries?  Should you worry if your child starts having nightmares and sleep issues? Or begins complaining of headaches or stomachaches, or fakes being sick?

If your child shows any of the above signs, he or she may be getting bullied

What if your child comes home with unexplained money or new belongings? Or is increasingly aggressive and you notice that his or her friends bully others (or you hear that they do)? Should you be concerned if your child does not accept responsibility for his or her actions and often blames others? Is your child highly competitive and overly concerned about his or her own popularity?

If your child shows any of the above signs, he or she may be a bully

Considering that 1 in 4 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school (28% in grades 6-12), and almost 71% of U.S. students have witnessed bullying behavior, it is not far-fetched to assume that our children are impacted by bullying. Children may play different roles within the bullying arena throughout their lives.  The four roles are 1. Kids who bully; 2. Kids who are bullied; 3. Kids who both bully and are bullied; and 4. Bystanders, of which there are four types: a. Kids who assist (join in with the bully in the behavior), b. Kids who reinforce (laugh and cheer on the bullying behavior), c. Outsiders (are observing the behavior and don’t quite know what to do) and d. Defenders (come to the aid or comfort of the one being bullied).

So, what can we do to help our children?

First, help kids understand bullying. Bullying can be verbal (teasing, name-calling, threatening to cause harm), social (leaving someone out on purpose or embarrassing someone in public), physical (hitting, tripping, destroying property) and cyberbullying (sharing, posting, or sending negative or mean and hurtful content via electronic devices). Having an argument or disagreeing with someone does not constitute bullying.  Bullying occurs when there is an imbalance of power, whether physically or intellectually.  Assist your children in identifying bullying behavior and the different roles mentioned above.  When have they found themselves in one of those roles?

Second, spend time each day asking open-ended questions of your children to learn about their days. This will show to your children that you are interested and reassure them that they can talk to you. The usual “How was your day?” will not get you very far. I would get “fine” and an eye roll if I was lucky before the kids dug into their after-school snack and then headed to their rooms!  Examples of open-ended questions are “What is something good that happened to you today?” “Who did you sit by at lunch?”  “What is it like to ride the bus?” These can lead to deeper conversations so that you can get to know what your children are doing and thinking during the day.  These conversations can then lead to opportunities where you will feel more comfortable asking direct questions such as, “Does bullying occur at school?” “What do you do when you see someone being bullied?” or “Are you being bullied/being a bully?”

Third, encourage your children to do what they love! Being active in something they are excited about will increase their self-esteem, provide opportunities to share with others what they enjoy and build friendships. Being lonely and not having many friends or lacking social skills are risk factors for being bullied, so assisting our children in developing social skills and engaging in confidence building activities will benefit them immensely.

How can you assist your child when/if he or she does get bullied? Scott Cooper, in his book titled Speak Up and Get Along, suggests many ways to handle a bully.  My two favorites are “The Shrug” and “The Mighty Might”.  Both defuse the situation immediately because confidence is being portrayed (even if it isn’t being felt!).

  • For “the Shrug”, when the bully says or does something mean, the response is to “shrug” and walk away. It may hurt inside, but “the shrug” sends a message to the bully that his/her words and actions don’t mean anything.
  • For “the Mighty Might”, when the bully says something like “You’re so stupid”, the response is “I might be”. Or when the bully says, “You can’t do anything right”, the response is “maybe”. This isn’t because you believe what the bully says, it simply leaves the bully with nowhere else to go.

Obviously, if the bully becomes more aggressive, telling an adult would be a wise choice. In the most recent statistics, only 20-30% of students who were bullied notified an adult, so it is paramount that the lines of communication are opened early and often, as mentioned above.

Lastly, remember that words have impact and how we use them matters. We can refrain from labeling children as “bullies” or “victims”, as these labels mistakenly send the message that a child’s behavior cannot change. A child may act as a bully one year and become a victim another, and then be a bystander many other times.  It is more productive to say, “the child who bullied” or “the child who was bullied”.

Most importantly, we can be models of kindness, courtesy, and compassion. Though we may not be aware, our children are paying attention to the ways in which we treat our friends, families, colleagues, servers, grocery store clerks, coaches, teachers…. everyone.  When we show others kindness and respect, we are demonstrating to our children how to behave.  I got a puppy last year and was amazed at how quickly he learned from my older dog what is acceptable in the home (and also learned some bad habits!)  Just like a young puppy learns from an older dog, so do our children learn from observing us.

**If you believe your child is being bullied or is a bully, have a candid conversation with him or her. Contact the school counselor or social worker or our office for assistance. You may also find valuable information at www.stopbullying.gov.