Which phone call is more disturbing for a parent, one informing you that your child is being bullied or one telling you that your child is the bully? Surprisingly, most children will experience both roles at some point on the road to adulthood. Either way, as a parent, you have to respond quickly. The sooner you get involved the better it will be for your child, no matter which role he happens to be playing at the moment
Why kids bully
Many factors contribute to bullying. First, children are not born with social skills. They learn through trial and error. In addition each child needs to find out how he fits into his peer group. Throughout elementary school and high school children learn how to deal with others in a variety of situations and they don’t always get it right. Sometimes a child might feel threatened by another and resorts to bullying to feel ‘safe’, or to maintain his perceived position in the group. Another child bullies in order to get the attention he is not getting elsewhere. Lastly, a child could be modeling his behavior after a parent or older sibling—are there any bullies in your house? Even too much teasing constitutes bullying and should not be tolerated at home or anywhere else.
Who are bullies?
Since most kids are a bully sometime during childhood is it fair to say that there is a ‘type’ of child who bullies? While all kids might try out bullying once or twice there are kids who habitually use this behavior in their dealings with others. Generally speaking, habitual bullies fall into one of two categories. One group is made up of the popular girls, the athletic, good-looking boys—members of the in-crowd. Kids in the other group tend to be children who have been marginalized themselves, possibly through bullying, and are typically kids with poor grades who aren’t involved in sports or other school activities. However, just because a child fits into one of those categories doesn’t mean he is a bully.
Signs Your Child is Being Bullied
Complaints about headaches and stomach aches
Unexplainable injuries from self or others
Changes in attitude, behavior, and achievement at school
Lost or damaged property
Changes with friends and social circles
Changes in sleep or eating habits
Reluctance / avoidance / inability to talk about it
Expressing no interest in anything
Intense feelings of hopelessness, shame and depression
Who gets bullied?
Here again, most kids end up on the receiving end of bullying at some time. There are, however, certain traits that predispose a child to being a target. Kids are quick to pick up on any physical or cultural difference, which can be useful tools for bullies. Children with physical and learning disabilities can be at risk. A child who stutters, or is extremely shy or even kids who dress outside the norm can be bullied. Kids who stand out by excelling in sports or academics can be targeted. More subtle targets are the children who have trouble reading and responding to social cues, like children with Asperger’s.
Bullying can take many forms. It can be teasing that goes too far, name-calling, stealing or breaking another’s belongings—even physical violence. Another form of bullying is spreading rumors about, or excluding a child from the group. In recent years, technology has put a dangerous edge on bullying through the use of smart phones and the Internet. Whatever form it takes, though, bullying makes children miserable and fearful for their own safety. If bullying is allowed to continue a child can suffer negative consequences for life with problems like depression and low self-esteem.
Where does bullying happen?
Bullying can happen anywhere at any time, but it most commonly occurs in the absence of adult supervision. Think about the times during your child’s day when he is with other kids and there are few or no adults around: playgrounds, cafeterias, the neighborhood, or public places like skating rinks, libraries and swimming pools. Does your child walk to and from school? That is a prime opportunity for bullying to occur.
Boys tend to be more physical bullies.
They often target smaller, weaker kids who are less likely to fight back. Stealing money, lunches or property is more common with boys. Threats of violence or actual physical harm, is more likely to happen with boys.
Girls on the other hand, tend to bully in less overt ways.
They frequently use tactics like telling others not to talk to or play with their victim, excluding them from social activities or spreading damaging rumors about another. In junior and senior high school, girls are more likely than boys to use electronic devices and the Internet to bully, although boys are catching on to this as well.
Why victims remain silent
Children who are being bullied frequently remain silent or are reluctant to talk to anyone about what it going on. First, they are afraid of retaliation. Secondly, some believe that they have done something to deserve the treatment, and will be further punished if they go to someone in authority. In fact, many parents and teachers hold the belief that if a child is being bullied, he has done something to warrant it. Little wonder that children keep quiet, desperately hoping it will just stop. Adults need to make clear that bullying is not acceptable at home, school or anywhere, including the Internet
Cyber-bullying: the ultimate torture
If you think bullying on the Internet is the same as a shove on the playground you’re wrong—cyber-bullying triples the risk of suicide in teens. Middle and high school age kids are well aware that images and text on the Internet or cell phones, is indeed, available to the entire world. There is no place for them to escape the notoriety that has been pinned on them. It is easy to understand a victim’s sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
Cyber-bullying allows bullies and their followers to cause unbearable pain to a classmate without being able to see their victim as they are acting. Without the consequence of seeing the victim’s pain, kids can go too far. This is obviously bad for the victim but it is also bad for the bullies. Children need to see the consequences of their actions, hopefully before it is too late.
What recourse do parents have?
If the phone call you receive tells you that your child is being bullied there is a great deal that you can do to help him. First though, take a deep breath and try to take in the information, calmly. Maintaining your composure will help your child as much as anything else you do. Actually that is good advice for the parents who receive the other phone call, the one telling them their child is the bully.
Help for the victim
Find out who is doing the bullying and where it is happening. If it is at school, you can arrange to meet with your child’s teacher and devise a plan to help keep him safe. Do not suggest a meeting at school with the bully and his family. Those meetings get heated and out of control; in the end little is accomplished. Still, it is your duty as a parent to approach the bully’s parents if the problem is in your neighborhood, but if it is at school have the administration do that.
You can advise your child to avoid the places where he might encounter problems and you can teach him ways to respond to bullying. Sometimes simply telling the other kid to ‘knock it off’ or by making a joke of the taunt, your child can defuse the entire situation. What about fighting back? That sometimes makes bullies back off, but unfortunately, your child needs to know that he then risks being punished as well. It needs to be stated for parents of both bully and victim that parents are legally responsible for their child’s behavior and assault is illegal at any age.
Lastly, bullies seldom target a child with a circle of friends. Even one good friend can be enough to discourage a would-be bully. If your child struggles socially, help him find that one friend through play groups or other activities.
Help for the bully
Bullies need help too. They attempt to control other kids through dominating, hurtful behavior. If left unchecked, they can assume that pattern for life. If your child is the perpetrator, you want him to understand that what he is doing is wrong and it won’t be tolerated. He will likely try to shift the blame and make excuses for his behavior, but he needs to acknowledge that he has hurt another person and that his behavior was not acceptable. If talking and reasoning don’t work, rescinding privileges, grounding, keeping him indoors when other kids are out playing are all strategies that help modify behaviors.
The important role of bystanders
In most episodes of bullying there are more kids present than the two main participants. The other children might be friends of the bully, the victim, or they might be bystanders not associated with either child. But the bystanders are the key to ending bullying. Bystanders have tremendous power. They can tell adults what is going on and they can let the bully know that they don’t approve of his actions. Fitting in with other kids is crucially important to school age children and they do not want to risk the opinion of others by backing a bully. Sometimes the disapproval of other children is enough to discourage the bully as well.
Discuss bullying with your kids. It is important that they know how to respond to bullies and that they can help other kids. It also lets them know that they can come to you for help if they need to.