Articles of Interest

What Can We Do About Bullying?

By Virginia Afman, LCSW, Clinical Supervisor of Outpatient Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

Bullying is a complex issue and takes many forms. Social and verbal bullying are reported to be the most frequent and can happen either directly in the person’s presence or indirectly through the spreading of rumors and gossip. I have heard stories from children about their classmates excluding them from any social contact. One first grade girl told me that when she would sit down at a lunch table, the entire table of girls would get up and move to another table. If only one girl would have extended friendship to this child, it would have made a world of difference to her feelings of low self-esteem, isolation, and sadness. Physical bullying happens less often, and least frequent is cyber-bullying. Most bullying occurs in school, on school grounds, on the school bus, or other places where children gather in groups.

Those most vulnerable to being bulled are children who are less popular or who are perceived as “different” or weak. Children who are seen as annoying or who may have anxiety or depression are at a higher risk of being bullied. LGBT youth are often seen as “different” and therefore at an increased risk. This doesn’t mean that these children will definitely be bullied but that they are more at risk for being bullied. In addition, some children report being bullied by their friends.

Bullies usually view violence in a positive way, are easily frustrated, and have difficulty following the rules. It is possible that some children have experienced bullying on both sides of the coin – by being bullied and by being the bully.

Putting an end to bullying is also a complex issue, and sometimes the advice that adults give to kids is ineffective. When children reach out to a trusted adult and tell them about being bullied, they are often told to “ignore the bully.” Bullying does not just go away on its own. Most likely, the child has already been trying to ignore the bullying, and it hasn’t worked. Telling the child that the bully is really weak or miserable also doesn’t help. Even if this is true, it doesn’t help a child with his/her own feelings of humiliation.

What can parents do to help kids affected by bullying? The Bully Project offers 10 tips for parents of children who have been bullied:

1. Make it safe for your child to talk to you.
Try not to have an emotional reaction but instead listen to your child to ensure you completely understand the situation. Is it bullying, peer conflict, or a misunderstanding? Remind your child that everyone has a right to feel safe and happy at school and applaud the courage it took for your child to take a stand and talk to you.

2. Teach your child to say “Stop!” or go find an adult.
Research shows that most bullies stop aggressive behavior within 10 seconds when someone (either a victim or bystander) tells the perpetrator to stop in a strong and powerful voice.

3. Talk with your child’s principal and classroom teacher about the situation.
Most bullying happens when adults are not around to witness. It is important that the school become aware of what is going on.

4. Arrange opportunities for your child to socialize with friends outside of school to help build and maintain a strong support system.

5. Don’t go it alone.
Parents may discover previously unnoticed vulnerabilities of their child. In addition to working with the school, reach out to physical and mental healthcare workers to discuss concerns about diagnosed or undiagnosed learning issues, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc.

6. Encourage your child to stick with a friend or buddy at recess, lunch, in the hallways, on the bus, or walking home. There is safety in numbers.

7. If cyberbullying is an issue, teach your child to bring it to the attention of an adult, rather than responding to the message.

8. Help your child become more resilient to bullying.
First, provide a safe and loving home environment where compassionate and respectful behavior is modeled consistently. Second, acknowledge and help your child to develop strengths, skills, talents, or other positive characteristics that may help your child be more confident among peers at school.

9. Provide daily ongoing support to your child by listening and maintaining ongoing lines of communication.

10. Follow up.
Be sure to stay in touch with your child and the school to avoid a relapse of the situation once it has been resolved. As a last resort, consider moving your child out of the school or social environment. This may be a necessary action, and it sends the message that your child does not have to tolerate such treatment. Once established, social reputations among peers can be very difficult to eliminate. A fresh start in a new school environment may be a viable solution.

Is it realistic to think we can eliminate bullying in our lifetime? The answer to this question depends on how much effort we are willing to put forth in establishing a culture shift to more caring, compassionate, and gentle communities. I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s statement, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” We can start by modeling respect and tolerance for differences and by teaching our children to be upstanders instead of bystanders when there is injustice.