Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Wrong! Hurtful words can leave emotional wounds long after the damage caused by a stick or stone has been healed. Cruel, harsh and threatening words often strike at the very core of a child’s sense of worth and value causing them to experience a sense of self-doubt, inadequacy and inferiority that can haunt them for a lifetime. This is often the consequence of bullying. In fact, it seems that the news reports more and more incidences in which children and teens have chosen to commit suicide rather than continue being subjected to the intense pain caused by a bully.
Although bullying has been around since biblical times, it is a growing concern among many parents. Despite the increased efforts of many caring and concerned school administrators and teachers, bullying, on and off school campuses, is on the rise.
Bullying is often defined as the frequent oppression, harassment and/or intimidation of other children; verbally, physically or both. Because of the growing availability and use of technology, kids are no longer just verbally teased and harassed face to face, they are now attacked, humiliated and embarrassed by cyber bullying in the form of text and instant messaging, e-mails, blogging, and postings on popular teen websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat among others.
The most common forms of bullying include name calling (the most common), physical aggression, intimidation, threats of harm, spreading rumors and shunning.
According to Debra J. Pepler of the La Marsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution at York University, boys are more likely to engage in bullying behavior than girls, and it is more likely to involve physical torment. In Pepler’s study, 23 percent of boys surveyed said that they had bullied, compared to eight percent of girls. According to BullyingStatistics.org, boys are more likely to use physical means to harass someone, and girls favor emotional and verbal methods.
What turns some children into bullies? Researchers led by Kris Bosworth of the University of Arizona, collected information from 558 students in grades 6 to 8. Those who reported having bullied the most had received more forceful, physical discipline from their parents, had viewed more TV violence and showed more misconduct at home. Thirty-two percent in the group who had bullied the most lived with a stepparent, and 36 percent lived in a single-parent household. Bullies generally had fewer adult role models, more exposure to gang activity and easier access to guns. Researchers concluded that bullies learn much of their behavior by example and consequently need as much help as their victims.
Other characteristics of kids who bully include a strong desire for attention, immaturity, a lack of popularity among peers and a dislike for school. Bullies also tend to engage in a variety of anti-social behaviors and often have problems with people in authority. Although bullies may appear to have a lot of friends many of the kids who hang around them do so out of fear.
Parents who have children that bully are often unwilling to admit that their kids are at fault. In many cases they defend their children by claiming that the victim must have done something to deserve the treatment they received. This type of parental response may help to reveal why the bullies themselves do what they do.
Signs that may point to the possibility that your child is a victim of bullying include a desire to miss school, vague physical complaints on school days (stomach pain, headache, etc.), not wanting to ride the school bus or frequent requests for rides to school, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, nightmares, anxiety, increased irritability and anger and an increase in social isolation. Other indicators may include declining grades, physical bruises or ripped clothing and missing personal belongings.
If you are concerned that your child may be a victim of bullying don’t ask them directly. Keep in mind that your child may be embarrassed to admit that he or she is a victim of bullying and may resist answering a direct question. Instead, ask questions such as how do you spend your lunch hour? What do you think about riding the bus or walking to school? Does your school have any bullies? And, who do you spend time with at school?
According to Richard B. Goldbloom, MD, parents can help their child deal with bullying by following several simple rules:
LISTEN. Stay calm, and allow your child plenty of time to tell you how he or she feels. Make it clear it’s not your child’s fault. Most importantly, don’t suggest your child simply fight back because it may increase his or her chances of further harm.
THINK. Think before you respond. Consider your options carefully and ask yourself if the situation is serious enough to warrant talking to your child’s teacher, the principal or perhaps even the police. (In some cases it may also be appropriate to speak to the parents of the bully. If you do, seek the support of a teacher or administrator and don’t go alone unless you have an established relationship with the parent.)
HELP. Help your child avoid the situations that expose him or her to bullying. If it occurs on the way to or from school, find a safe route and arrange for an older child to accompany your son or daughter. Talk to your child about places she can go for help. Let your school administration know that a problem exists, and ask for their help. Also, keep a written record of incidents, who was involved and what actions were taken to intervene.
Lastly, it is important to regularly affirm and encourage your child. Although the negative influence of a bully can be profound, nothing can compare to a home that provides a safe and secure environment where your child consistently receives the message that he or she is unconditionally loved and accepted.
What experience have you had with bullying, either involving you or your child? What practical advice would you give to someone who is involved today?
Live, Work & Relate Well!
Dr. Linaman is a psychologist and executive coach providing counseling and professional development services to individuals, couples, work teams and organizations.