Were you bullied as a child? Statistics suggest that one in four of those reading this article have been. I was. My bullying was at the hands of Mike and his friends. It occurred when I was in the seventh grade, new to the school, and he was a year older. I was a shy, insecure teen with few friends while trying to figure out where I fit in. Mike and his friends frequently chased me and threatened to beat me up if they caught me (which only actually happened once). I spent most of my days that year trying to avoid and run from them. I only ever told my younger brother and one friend. Fortunately, as I was able to develop more friends and avoid the bullies long enough, they left me alone and moved onto other vulnerable kids. My story, as you will see, has many characteristics of the universal problem of bullying.
The realization that your child is being bullied can be very difficult to deal with. Parental responses include denial, fear, anger, feelings of helplessness, uncertainty, and questions as to why, including questioning whether your child did something to bring this upon his or herself. Many parents are unsure what action to take. Will reporting it help or make it worse? It is also very common for parents to be completely unaware that their child is being bullied. Often children have the same responses to the problem as their parents, resulting in their trying to cope with it on their own.
Lest you think it won’t happen to your child, the statistics suggest that a large number of children experience bullying. While slightly less experience cyberbullying (7 to 15 percent), this is an increasing phenomenon and is more likely to occur in high school as opposed to grade school.
Bullying is not “just part of being a kid.” It is a form of aggressive behavior that can have significant, and even deadly consequences; victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than other young people. Less severe consequences include school avoidance, falling grades, social isolation, anxiety and depression –– and a negative impact on self-esteem. What can you, as parents, do if your child is being bullied? Is your child possibly the one actually doing the bullying?
Bullying is defined as an aggressive behavior where one intentionally and repeatedly uses superior strength or influence to intimidate or cause injury or discomfort to another. Bullying can be an attempt to control or manipulate, and it involves a power differential. The one being bullied has done nothing to cause it and has trouble defending himself. Bullying can involve physical contact (hitting); it can be verbal (name calling or threats); or it can be psychological (spreading rumors, shunning). Bullying can happen face-to-face, or can take the form of cyberbullying.
Children most at risk to be bullied have one or more of the following characteristics:
• They are different in some form (physical appearance, new to a school, not “cool”).
• They are, or appear to be, weak and unable to defend themselves.
• They are less popular and have few friends (a more rare form is the popular child who is bullied by someone who envies that popularity).
• They are insecure in their identity, have low self-esteem and experience anxiety.
Children who bully have some of the following characteristics:
• They have social power and use control over others to gain or maintain popularity and attention.
• They have low self-esteem and a poor ability to identify with the feelings of others.
• They have underlying anger and poor impulse control.
• They are engaging in payback for a perceived or actual slight against them.
• They experience any number of problems at home such as aggression, violence, absent parents, prejudicial attitudes, not feeling loved or accepted.
• They are experiencing peer pressure to bully and derive some pleasure from the power and control.
• Many bullies do so simply because they can. No one tells them they have to stop.
With the increasing access children and teens have to technology, there is an increasing form of cyber-bullying, defined as “the willful and repeated harm inflicted through the uses of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.” Remember that bullying is intentional (not accidental), repeated (not an isolated incident), and the victim perceives and experiences harm. Social media, texts and emails are the typical avenues through which cyber-bullying occurs. There are several aspects of cyber-bullying that can make it even more damaging.
• The bully can be anonymous and difficult to catch and stop.
• The damaging actions can be permanently on the Internet and very difficult to have removed.
• It can be viewed by large numbers, increasing the humiliation, alienation and ostracizing that the victim experiences.
• It often leaves the victim feeling exposed and powerless to protect herself.
What is a parent to do?
Bullying is a prevalent problem. Thinking it won’t touch your child is not an appropriate or helpful response as a parent. Thirty percent of children will be involved in bullying, either as a victim or a bully himself. It is a problem that is happening to all teens. It happens in public and private schools alike, to all socio-economic classes, in all ethnic groupings and across all religious groups. In fact, raising your child in church, having him participate in church activities or even homeschooling your child will not make him immune from being bullied or being a bully. While there is no simple solution to this problem, let me suggest some strategies that are helpful.
Acknowledge that it is a problem. This means first educating yourself as a parent about the issue. A mere Internet search on the topic will reveal numerous helpful websites and articles. Significant resources and research are available in this area.
Talk to your child about the topic. Begin this early, the first years of elementary school are not too early. Help him or her to understand what bullying behavior is. Create safety for them in talking to you about their experiences. Talking about your own experiences with being bullied can help your child not feel alone should he experience or witness it.
Help your child know what to do if they witness bullying. He or she may see it occur in person or may witness cyber-bullying. Encourage your child not to participate in it. Discuss whether your child is able to confront it, befriend the victim or report what’s been seen to someone at school.
Build in your child empathy for others who are different. Teach your child to identify with the feelings and needs of others. While the capacity to do this increases as a child gets older, it is never too early to talk about these issues. Model empathy and compassion in the home as opposed to judgment and prejudice.
Know your child’s online world. Remember, phones and computers (including social media) are a privilege, not a right. You as a parent are justified to be aware and monitor what your child is using or accessing. You can give this privilege coinciding with maturity and what is age appropriate. What other kids are doing or have access to is not the basis for deciding what privileges you will allow for your child. Further, take the time to learn about and teach your child to be “safe online” (i.e. safeguarding passwords, not giving out their address or whereabouts).
What if your child is actually being bullied?
Offer comfort and support. You can do this by affirming your child for letting you know about it. Let your child know it is not his or her fault. Remind your child that he or she is not alone, that this happens to others. Reassure that you will figure out what to do together. Don’t over-react by taking unilateral action.
Decide if the situation can be handled by empowering your child to respond to the bullying himself. If so, work with the child on what to say. In cases of cyberbullying, it is usually advisable to not respond online. This can make the situation worse. Do keep evidence including screenshots of the threatening messages.
If it is connected to the child’s school, let an administrator know and ask for help. Most schools have protocols for responding to bullying incidents. If it is not connected to the child’s school, consider whether speaking to the parent of the bully directly would be helpful. Mediation with a school counselor, teacher, pastor or even law-enforcement can be an avenue to pursue.
In cases of cyber-bullying, the following measures are often recommended:
• Block the bully on devices using available settings to block email, texts, etc. from specific people.
• Limit your child’s access to technology. This may be difficult for your child, but many kids who are bullied can’t resist the temptation to check to see if there are new messages.
• Utilize the reporting services that social media sites have for bullying and inappropriate content. Social media sites have protocols as to what is allowed to be posted, and they have processes for reporting violations. They are able to shut down the accounts of violators. They are overwhelmed with monitoring violations, so be persistent and educate yourself on the appropriate method for reporting such violations.
What if your child is the bully?
Discovering that your child is bullying others is upsetting and disheartening. Most kids engage in inappropriate behavior at times, so finding out about it is in one sense a “gift.” It allows you as a parent to continue to do your job of training, educating and correcting your child. Embrace the opportunity. Here are a few suggestions:
• Talk to your child firmly. Help them to understand that teasing and ridiculing another might seem funny and harmless, but it can cause great hurt to another. Use this to help them grow in empathy — their ability to understand the feelings and experiences of another –– and to help them consider how their actions would make them feel as the recipient.
• Remind them that technology usage is a privilege that can be revoked if used irresponsibly or illegally (some forms of cyberbullying can have legal consequences).
• Restrict and monitor their usage of technology until you see a proven pattern of appropriate usage.
• Get to the heart of the matter. This might involve talking to a teacher or school counselor about larger issues at school. If your child is defensive, has trouble managing anger or other emotions, or is acting out of low self-esteem or insecurity, talk to a therapist. It is best to get help for your child who is struggling as early as possible.
• Lastly, be willing to examine your values and attitudes. Is there anything in your life, relationships or approach to the world that might have contributed to your child’s bullying behavior?
Some say we live in a time where raising children is more difficult than it ever has been. At the same time, we have more resources for help than ever. If your child experiences being bullied or you discover he or she is bullying others, take action. Talk about it, get involved and get whatever help is needed. Ignoring it can make you part of the problem. Our younger generation needs us to be part of the solution.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the Executive Director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies.