Today, bullying is more prevalent than ever. And because it’s so difficult to escape, parents need to talk to kids so they’ll know how to handle a bully if faced with one. Discuss problems before they escalate.
Remember the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?” Ask anyone who has ever been the target of a bully and they’ll likely disagree with that sentiment. Sixty-six percent of youth are teased at least once a month, and nearly one-third of youth are bullied at least once a month, according to a 2002 study by the Families and Work Institute.
While some people, even some parents, think this behavior is simply a rite of passage, the truth is that bullying can have serious and damaging consequences. Fortunately, watchful parents can prevent this situation by recognizing the signs that a child is being bullied and knowing how to help them battle back.
What is Bullying?
Most bullying is subtle and discreet and includes spreading rumors or gossip, ridicule, verbal abuse, humiliation and embarrassment. Bullying occurs most often at school, publicly or privately, and not just on the playground. Hallways and restrooms are hot spots.
The verbal nature of most bullying incidents presents a unique challenge, according to Roger Dinwiddie, executive director of the Center for Youth Issues Nashville. Dinwiddie is a nationally-certified trainer in violence prevention and bullying. The center is the home of STARS – Students Taking a Right Stand. The program works with area schools to address barriers to learning, including bullying.
“It’s important to understand that bullying is a very difficult thing to stop because it happens so quickly. Parents need to understand that we will never be able to stop all inappropriate behavior, especially if we don’t know about it,” he says.
Seemingly harmless teasing can escalate if intervention does not take place. A 2002 U.S. Secret Service Report indicates that harassment and bullying have been linked to 75 percent of school-shooting incidents, including the fatal shootings at Columbine High School.
Bullies and Their Targets
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. The one thing they have in common? A need to use power over others. “Bullying is when someone with more power uses their power to unfairly hurt someone with less power over and over again,” Dinwiddie says.
Common characteristics of a bully include a hot temper, average or high self-esteem, and a lack of empathy for others. Bullies also tend to come from homes where they are bullied themselves by family members. Both boys and girls are guilty of bullying, but they do it in different ways. “Girls do more psychological bullying, whereas boys do more physical bullying,” says Dinwiddie.
Children who are bullied also have common characteristics. Dinwiddie says there are both passive and provocative targets. “A passive target is a child who is really isolated, quiet, withdrawn or depressed. They don’t assert themselves well,” he says. “A provocative target is a child who has a very difficult time controlling their impulses, almost pestering others, and often does this repetitively. They should never be bullied, but they often are as a result of their behavior.”
What are the Consequences?
The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 students miss school every day as a result of bullying and the fear of being attacked. Illnesses, poor appetite and depression have also been linked to bullying. “Bullying impacts the climate of the school because it robs it of being the kind of civil place students want to be,” says Dinwiddie. “It is catastrophic to those kids.”
In addition to short-term effects, students who are bullied as early as middle school can suffer long-lasting effects. Research by bullying expert Dan Olweus shows that childhood victims of bullies are more depressed and have lower self-esteem than their non-bullied peers as late as age 23.
Bullies too suffer consequences of their behavior into adulthood. The 2003 Fight Crime: Invest in Kids study showed that 60 percent of bullies were convicted of at least one crime by age 24, and 40 percent had three or more convictions by that age.
What are Schools Doing About Bullying?
With most bullying happening on school grounds, educators and school officials are often on the front lines in the battle against bullies.
A survey of local school systems shows that bullying is generally defined as harassing or intimidating behavior that interferes with another student’s learning. Public schools in Davidson, Williamson and Rutherford counties each include a bullying or harassment policy in their student manuals.
“We define bullying as any form of violence, as well as verbal or physical intimidation of any sort,” says James Evans, district spokesman for Rutherford County Schools. Policies vary in terms of how bullying incidents are handled, ranging from defined disciplinary action to principal discretion.
All public school systems in Tennessee are now required to have a bullying policy in effect as a result of a law passed in May 2005. Ralph M. Thompson, assistant superintendent for student services for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, says that the law provides support for schools in addressing this important issue. “It may not cut down on acts of bullying and intimidation, but it gives districts and schools the encouragement and support to have to deal with this. We have the law on our side and the obligation to do so.”
Schools also have programs in place for students aimed at preventing bullying and training is provided for faculty and administrators to help them address the problem as well.
“We’ve been addressing the issue of bullying for years,” says Dianne O’Neil, Safe and Drug-Free Schools coordinator in Williamson County. “School-by- school is one thing, but dealing with it district-wide is also extremely important so we can get everyone on the same page.”
What Can Parents Do?
Parents have a pivotal role in battling bullies. Recognizing the signs that a child may be the victim of a bully is the first step. “Investigate and inspect. If you’re starting to see psychosomatic signs of a child not wanting to go to school, be more vigilant about what’s going on with your child,” says Dinwiddie. “Torn articles of clothing, missing money …these are clues that harassment or bullying might be involved.” If bullying is suspected, parents should report the situation to the child’s teacher or school principal immediately.
Preparing a child to deal with a bully is also helpful. Dinwiddie suggests that children need to know how to stand up to a bully and how important it is to report the behavior to an adult if it happens. “Teach kids to assert themselves in a forceful but nonviolent way and communicate to the other child to stop or they will be reported,” he says.
Unfortunately, bullying is also now happening online. Cyberbullying is an increasing problem and e-mails and anonymous Web sites are the latest weapons used to target victims. Parents should monitor their child’s online activities and report any troublesome findings to a school administrator.
Most importantly, Dinwiddie says that parents and other trusted adults need to be sure that children feel safe reporting bullying to them and know that action will be taken. “The important thing to remember is that kids need adult assistance in addressing this problem. Kids can’t solve bullying by themselves because it’s an issue of power,” he says. “Don’t brush it off as a rite of passage. It’s not. Bullying is equal to peer-to-peer abuse.”
Liz Cerami Taylor is a mother and frequent contributor to this publication. She lives with her family in Nashville.
WAYS TO HANDLE A BULLY
- Stay calm and alert. Consider the options and do nothing to escalate the situation.
- Walk away. Fighting isn’t worth it.
- Take a non-violent stand. Say, “I don’t want to fight you.”
- Report it to authorities and discuss how you will be protected.
- Get away. Find safety or call for help.
STATISTICS ON BULLYING
- Six out of 10 American teens witness bullying at least once a day. (National Crime Prevention Council)
- Nearly one-third of middle schoolers have been the object of sexual jokes, comments or gestures. (National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center)
- One out of every 10 students who drops out of schools does so because of repeated bullying. (Oklahoma Health Department)
- Twenty-five percent of kids in grades 4 – 8 who are bullied have experienced academic difficulties. (Hoover and Oliver)
- Bullying in school tends to increase through elementary grades, peak in middle school and drop off by the 11th and 12th grades. (Ron Banks)