When it comes to our children, we parents want to do all we can to protect them from harm. Sadly, far too many children are suffering needless torment at the hands of bullies who besiege them at school, on playgrounds, in small groups, on the street, and even online. This can cause long-lasting harm to the child’s emotional well-being and bring about tragedies if the bullying continues and/or escalates to the point where the child considers suicide as the only way out. How can you, as parents, stop these bullies from tormenting your children? This is a complicated subject, involving many different aspects. Let’s begin with a definition of bullying, the various categories of bullying, and then proceed to some action items you can use to ensure the torment of bullying stops.
What Is Bullying
According to the StopBullying.gov website, bullying is defined as: “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.”
Types of Bullying
Now that we have a better idea what bullying is, it’s important to look at the different types of bullying that go on today that have the potential to inflict harm on our children.
- Physical – Just as the name implies, physical bullying – which is more widespread among boys – includes physically acted-out behaviors such as hitting, shoving, kicking, and the taking of or destroying property.
- Verbal – The most common form of verbal bullying by both sexes is verbal abuse. But there are numerous other examples of verbal bullying, including name-calling, comments that are insulting, intimidating, threatening, racist, taunting, teasing, sexist or sexual. Teasing and bullying, according to some researchers, exist at different points on the same continuum. And other researchers have found that students themselves are somewhat confused by teasing, one example of verbal bullying. On the one hand, they consider it fun, but they also rank it as the most frequent bullying behavior.
- Psychological or relational – In this type of bullying, the person doing the bullying uses relationships to either harm or control another person. Psychological or relational bullying includes behavior that involves excluding a person from events or a group, talking behind that person’s back, telling lies about the person, spreading rumors about the person, and giving that person the so-called silent treatment. This type of bullying deprives children of the opportunity to be accepted by and to be close with their peers, something that they need for their personal growth and well-being. Girls are more likely to engage in psychological or relational bullying, and to be the targets of such bullying, but both boys and girls are united in considering it the most hurtful type of bullying.
- Sexual harassment – This form of bullying is about power, not sex. It involves unwanted or unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with the child’s or student’s life. Among individuals and groups most at risk for sexual harassment are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual students. In fact, one survey conducted in 2005 found that 90 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual students said that they had been either verbally or physically harassed in the previous year. Among preteens and young teens, homophobic insults were the most common form of sexual harassment, but both boys and girls are harassed, and they harass others. Sexual harassment includes being the target of sexual looks, comments, jokes or gestures; being called lesbian or gay; having their clothing pulled down or off; being spied upon in a school or other locker room or shower while in the process of undressing or showering; being the target of graffiti or sexual rumors; being brushed up against, pinched, touched or grabbed in a sexual way; being mooned or flashed, and being forced to kiss someone else or do something sexual to them.
- Cyberbullying – Although this type of bullying generally occurs away from school grounds and requires the use of the Internet, the result is that it can seriously jeopardize the way children react and behave when they are in school and elsewhere. When a child resorts to cyberbullying, he or she has a wide variety of options to do so, including the use of cell phones, email, instant messaging, chatrooms, blogs, videos and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The cyberbullying behavior can consist of spreading rumors, threatening, harassing, insulting and impersonating others. Cyberbullying goes on 24 hours a day, every day of the year. What makes it so difficult and vicious is that the cyber bully can remain anonymous, invisible, distant from their actions, and often to get away with their actions without any kind of punishment.
How Bullying is Different From Other Aggressive Acts
Bullying is similar to, but differentiated from, other forms of aggressive acts. In the case of bullying, the bully (the student or child who bullies) intends to do harm to another. In addition, there is more than one incident of bullying, and the person being bullied finds it difficult to defend himself because of the imbalance of power. Power differences can exist because the bully is older, bigger or stronger. There may be several children participating in the bullying, making it a group action to harm another child. Psychological bullying can happen when the bully has more perceived power or social status. In any event, the child being bullied (the victim) always feels oppressed.
Direct versus Indirect Bullying
In direct bullying, the bully operates openly, thus allowing his or her victim to be able to identify the attacker. Indirect bullying involves the perpetrator of the bullying to hide his or her identity or to attempt to conceal identity while inflicting harm on another child. Most physical bullying is the direct form, but cyberbullying, sexual harassment, psychological or relational bullying, and verbal bullying, can be either direct or indirect.
Where Bullying Most Often Occurs
Researchers have found that the majority of bullying occurs clandestinely. That is, the action takes place in areas where there are no or few adults present. The child who is the perpetrator of the bullying feels that he or she (or they) can get away with the behavior and feel safe doing it. Typical harassment locations include the school playground, locker rooms, the cafeteria, bathrooms, and hallways.
Who Are the Kids Involved in Bullying
It is an oversimplification to say that the only children involved in bullying are those kids who do the bullying and those who are bullied. But there are also those children who do not participate in the bullying, nor are they the child or children being bullied, but they may witness the bullying. By witnessing it, they may contribute to the behavior. They may also be affected by the behavior. Witnesses of bullying behavior play different roles, including the following:
- Assist – These kids, although they did not start or participate in the actual bullying, may, in the process of witnessing it going on, encourage or occasionally join in the bullying behavior.
- Reinforce – Watching the bullying going on, these kids provide the bully or bullies with an audience. They may laugh or provide other support to the bully, which encourages the bully to continue.
- Outsiders – Sitting on the sidelines, watching the bullying behavior, these kids neither assist nor reinforce the bullying. They often want to help, but do not know how. Nevertheless, by not saying or doing anything, they serve to encourage the bullying behavior by their mere presence and the fact that they give the bully an audience.
- Defend – Some children won’t just stand by while a friend or classmate is being bullied. They often step in to physically or verbally defend the child under attack.
Some children are both bullied and act as bullies. Some children experience witnessing bullying long before they themselves are either bullied or become bullies.
Risk Factors for Bullies
Who becomes a bully? Is there a way to pinpoint a child who is on the verge of such destructive behavior? Experts say that two types of kids are more likely to bully others. The first type includes those who are well-connected to their peers, have social power, like to dominate or be in charge of others, and are overly concerned about their popularity. The second type includes those who may be depressed or anxious, are isolated from their peers, less involved in school, easily pressured, or who don’t identify with others’ feelings or emotions. Risk factors for bullies include:
- Aggression or being easily frustrated
- Difficulty following rules
- Believe violence is positive
- Lack of parental involvement or issues at home
- Have a bad opinion of others
- Have friends who bully others
Risk Factors for Victims of Bullies
Is your child at risk of becoming the target of a bully? Are there risk factors that you should be on the lookout for? If your child has one or more of the following five factors, he or she may be at risk of bullying:
- Depressed, anxious or low esteem
- Less popular with other children and/or have few friends
- Looked upon as weak or otherwise unable to defend themselves
- Different from other children: overweight, underweight, new kid at school, doesn’t fit in because he or she doesn’t wear “cool” clothes, wears glasses or different clothing
- Annoying, doesn’t get along well with other children, provoking, or antagonizes others in order to get attention
What’s important to keep in mind is that just because your child has some of the aforementioned risk factors, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your child will become the victim of bullying.
Tips for Parents
How do you know if your child has been victimized by a bully? There are several warning signs that should alert you to the possibility that bullying has occurred. Learn how to recognize these signs so that you’ll be able to deal with bullying and help your child to overcome it. Bullying effects – what you can see or hear from your child – include:
- Your child comes home with torn, ripped or damaged articles of clothing, or belongings such as books or backpacks or other personal items.
- You see unexplained cuts, bruises, scrapes and scratches that may have been caused by fighting with other children.
- You notice that your child seems to be anxious and that he/she suffers from low self-esteem.
- Your child has an unexplained loss of appetite.
- Your child has frequent nightmares or has difficulty sleeping.
- You note that your child has few, if any friends, with whom he/she spends any amount of time.
- Your child doesn’t want to go to school, is afraid to walk to/from school or ride the bus or engage in activities with other children.
- Your child shows a distinct aversion to joining groups, such as clubs, or participating in sports with other peers at school.
- Schoolwork takes a downward turn, as your child loses interest or starts to perform poorly – especially when they were previously doing well or at least average.
- Your child complains frequently of having headaches, stomach aches and other physical problems – when your child has otherwise been healthy.
- You find out that your child has begun taking extremely long or illogical routes to/from school.
- When your child comes home from school, he/she appears depressed, sad, moody or teary.
Need help with a child who’s been bullied? There are helpful tip sheets available in PDF format from the Violence Prevention Works website. Briefly, here are some tips you can use:
- Never blame your child for the bullying and don’t jump to the conclusion that your child did something in order to provoke the bullying incident.
- Don’t ever tell your child to simply ignore the bullying. That won’t make it go away or allow your child to heal from it.
- Give your child permission to talk about what happened – and write down what he or she says.
- Be sure your child knows that you empathize with him/her. Tell your child in no uncertain terms that bullying is wrong, it isn’t your child’s fault, and that you are glad he/she has the courage to discuss what happened with you.
- Never voice any criticism of how your child handled the bullying incident, even if you disagree with what he or she did. Keep in mind that this is a child and children very often don’t know how to handle such situations, especially the first time it happens, but also if it happens repeatedly.
- Never encourage your child to physically retaliate to the bully or bullies.
- Be sure to watch your emotions and hold them in check. Of course, you want to protect your child and your natural instinct is to do so. But, in order to help your child who has been bullied, step back and think about your next steps in a logical and level-headed manner.
- Get in touch with school officials and report the bullying incident. This should be a teacher, a school counselor, or the principal. Do this immediately as time is of the essence.
- Then, work closely with these individuals at the school to resolve the problem.
- Work with your child to teach safety strategies that he/she can use in the event of bullying. An example of this is how to ask for help from an adult.
- Encourage your child to make new friends outside of school, or to get involved with some of the friendly kids at school.
- Also encourage your child to develop other interests and hobbies. This helps build resiliency, a trait that is helpful in navigating stressful situations like bullying.
- Definitely ensure that your child has a safe and loving home environment.
- If you – or your child – need any additional help, seek it through a mental health professional or a school counselor. But do get help. Don’t put it off or think the issue will just go away. It won’t.
What if it’s your child that’s doing the bullying? What can or should you do? Experts recommend that you:
- Tell your child that bullying is unacceptable, and it is wrong.
- Establish rules regarding bullying and make sure your child knows the consequences for violating the rules. For example, a logical consequence for bullying may be for your child to lose the rights to call friends on the phone, to use email, or to engage in other activities your child enjoys.
- You’ll need to spend a lot of time with your child, monitoring who his or her friends are and how and where they spend their free time.
- Encourage participation in positive activities, such as sports (that are nonviolent), school clubs, music lessons and so on.
- Go see the school principal, teacher or school counselor and discuss your concerns about your child’s bullying behavior. The intent should be to arrive at a clear message you can deliver to your child that bullying has to stop.
- If you – or your child – need more help, be sure you get it from a mental health professional or a school counselor.
In the end, the most positive thing that parents have going for them when it comes to ending bullying – by the bully and to the bullied – is to take prompt action, to get involved, to be there for your children and to make sure that your child knows that you love him/her above all else and will do all you can to protect your child.