Many parents assume that a few scuffles with other kids are par for the course during childhood, and that dealing with a bully or two builds character, especially if a son or daughter learns to stand up to the offender (with or without a punch or two being thrown in the process). These themes have driven crowd-pleasing movies such as The Karate Kid and Back to the Future, but what happens off the silver screen is another story.
In everyday life, bullying is abusive, ugly and disturbingly common, with profound and sometimes lethal consequences. Indeed, its physical and emotional impact on children is now being addressed as a serious health issue by professional organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Medical Association, as well as by governmental agencies.
To be specific, bullying involves ongoing aggressive behavior intended to cause harm or distress in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power, physical or otherwise. Bullying is literally "as old as sin" and can occur at any stage of life, but it is particularly common — and destructive — during childhood and adolescence.
Sadly but not surprisingly, the targets of bullying are often those who are poorly equipped to deal with it: the small, the weak, those who look or act a little different from the crowd, and those who have difficulty making and keeping friends. Bullying goes well beyond the usual horseplay, verbal and otherwise, of childhood and adolescence. It is essentially child abuse perpetrated by peers, and it may take a variety of forms:
Statistics about bullying are based primarily on survey data, which have typically found that at any given time between 20 and 30 percent of students are involved, either as perpetrators, victims or both.2 For example, one national survey of more than fifteen thousand adolescents in the sixth through tenth grade found that 11 percent reported being bullied, 13 percent admitted to bullying others, and another 6 percent said they both bullied others and had been the targets of bullying themselves.3 Bullying is ubiquitous: It is not restricted to any particular geographic location, community setting (urban, suburban or rural), ethnic group or socioeconomic status. It is more common at school — in the classroom, hallway, playground or lunchroom — than on the way to or from school.
Unfortunately, statistics only dimly reflect the pain endured by victims of bullying. Aside from any physical injuries they might sustain, they are also more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and physical complaints such as headaches, abdominal pain and fatigue.
Needless to say, reluctance to go to school (or wherever the bullying is taking place) is a common manifestation and may result in numerous missed days of school. When a child or adolescent is experiencing frequent school absences, especially due to physical complaints for which a medical evaluation reveals no specific cause, victimization by bullying should be considered as a possible — or likely — cause. Unfortunately, all too often a child or teen will be reluctant to report what has happened to parents or school officials — even if asked directly — because of a conviction that nothing can be done about it, lack of confidence that teachers or administrators will take effective action and (most importantly) fear of retaliation.
Even more worrisome is the connection between bullying and violence, by both the perpetrator and victim. Children and teens who bully are more likely to be involved or injured in fights, and to steal, vandalize, smoke, use alcohol, drop out of school and carry a weapon. Furthermore, those who have been repeatedly victimized may decide to seek spectacular and tragic revenge. In 2002, the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education evaluated thirty-seven mass school shootings that had occurred between 1974 and 2000. Of the forty-one attackers involved, three out of four had felt persecuted and bullied prior to the incident.4
What can be done about bullying? Preventing, detecting and responding to bullying require involvement of parents, schools, churches and (when necessary) law enforcement.
Be aware of the following indicators that may indicate a child is being harassed:
If you are suspicious, ask questions that express your interest and concern: "How are things going at school? Is anything — or anyone — giving you a hard time?" Your child may be reluctant to reveal what has happened, and you may need to exercise some persistence to find out. If bullying has indeed occurred, make sure he understands that you take it very seriously, that you intend to take appropriate action and that keeping silent will only allow the bully to continue what he is doing. You will need to get as much information as possible: who, when, where and what happened. If there have been witnesses to the bullying, gather information from them as well.
Assuming that this has happened at school, make an appointment as soon as possible with the principal or administrator who is designated to handle this type of problem. Most likely this person will be ready and willing to put the heat on anyone who is involved in bullying, but he or she will need specifics. Tell the story but also provide information in writing, and be sure to take note of the response to your concern. You may want to arrange a meeting with the perpetrator and one or both of his parents in a school official's office. Your posture should be calm, but resolute: Look the bully in the eye and make it abundantly clear that even one further episode will bring disastrous consequences and that you expect his parents to cooperate.
If the harassment continues and the principal or parents of the perpetrator appear unwilling to take appropriate action, they should be put on notice that the problem may be taken to a higher level of school administration, an attorney, the police or all of the above. If the problem involves risks of extreme violence or gang activity, you will need to seek advice from law-enforcement personnel. In a worst-case scenario, a change of school (or home schooling) may be necessary to bring your child or adolescent through this situation in one piece. Do whatever it takes (within the bounds of the law) to protect your child's safety and self-respect.
Whatever you do, don't shrug it off (Hey, boys will be boys) or deny that there's a problem. Get the facts. You should get your child's side of the story, but also diligently seek input both from school officials and from whomever else was involved, including the victim(s) of the bullying. If the evidence (or your child's or teen's own admission) points to involvement in bullying, you will need to have a number of serious conversations:
You must make it clear not only that this behavior is unacceptable, but that if continued, it will lead to serious consequences imposed by you, the school and possibly the law.
You will need to contact the parents of the victim(s) involved to apologize and express your determination to prevent further episodes. As a gesture of integrity and courage, you might want to arrange a meeting with the other family at an appropriate location so that a formal apology can be made by your child, as well as an offer of restitution for any expenses (involving medical care or property damage) related to the incident(s).
If others have been involved in bullying — perpetrators often act in groups — you should take the lead in contacting their parents to encourage corrective and restorative action.
If your child or teen has been involved in multiple bullying incidents, you should arrange for him to undergo counseling, both for evaluation and prevention of further episodes. Other issues — depression, drug use, impulse control and even prior victimization (since some bullies have been bullied themselves) — may need to be addressed. This is a family issue, so be prepared to participate in some important discussions in the counselor's office yourself.
Parents have the primary responsibility for training, instilling and modeling values in their children, including respect for other people, regardless of age, appearance or other characteristics. Bullying, at its core, is an expression of disrespect. Thus the atmosphere at home should be one in which abusive speech or actions, whether directed at others within or outside of the family, are clearly understood to be unacceptable for everyone — children and adults alike.
More specifically, parents should impress on their school-age and adolescent children that they are not to participate in bullying, whether as individuals or in a group, and that they should report bullying to an adult (teacher, administrator or parent), whether they themselves or someone else is the target. Furthermore, when possible, they should understand that coming to the assistance of someone who is being bullied is not only appropriate, but an act of courage.
Schools are responsible for providing a safe environment for all who attend, including a schoolwide culture in which bullying is definitely not acceptable. This goes well beyond cracking down on individual bullies. It requires an ongoing, comprehensive effort involving students, teachers, administrators and support staff that is designed to increase awareness of bullying, improve adult supervision, and generate rules and a social climate that clearly discourage bullying. The staff and teachers must also provide protection from all forms of bullying.
Churches should clearly teach young and old alike that bullying directly contradicts the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. It was He, after all, who sought out the outcasts and powerless and who taught the critical importance of helping "the least of these."
Furthermore, church youth groups can be a learning laboratory for accepting and welcoming everyone — including those who aren't particularly attractive or popular in school. Unfortunately this does not happen automatically among children and teens — even those who have been raised in church — so youth and student leaders alike must continually strive to keep their gatherings a welcoming, clique-free zone.
"Why are you reading that girly book?" the bully on the bus asked my 11-year old son, who told me about the incident later that day.
We talked through what had happened, and I could tell he was shaken by the incident. As we talked, he decided that the next time it occurred, using humor would be the best way for him to respond. We had fun role-playing this before his bus ride the next day.
Sure enough, the bully was at it again: "Are you still reading that girly book?"
“Yep,” my son said without skipping a beat, "Thanks for letting me borrow it!"
That got laughs from the kids on the bus. Even the bully cracked an appreciative smile.
Many parents struggle knowing how to deal with the situation when our children are bullied. We fear that if we intervene in the wrong way, we could potentially make life harder for them. On the other hand, we do not want to demoralize their spirit by leaving them to fend for themselves without equipping them with appropriate resources.
How can parents help children deal with bullies on the bus, playground or wherever? Here’s some practical advice:
One of the best ways to prepare your children to handle bullying situations is through role-playing at home. The key to teaching them to deal with bullies is to familiarize yourself with your kids' individual personality. Knowing your children well will help you equip them with the proper skills needed to respond to a bully.
Cater the role-playing to your children’s comfort level. If they do not feel comfortable in the ways you practice responding, your children will have trouble using those methods when the situation arises. Instead, equip them with effective responses based on their disposition.
Before you act out the situation at home, find out where the bullying is taking place. Typically, bullying takes place in areas where bullies feel empowered to do as they please, such as on the playground, in the bathroom, on the school bus and so forth.
Talk through different response options before the next time bullying might take place, and then act it out. The home is the safest place in which to prepare for real-world issues.
Here are some strategies your children could use:
Tell an Adult. Even if the bullying is more verbal than physical, it always has the potential to escalate. To ensure that your kids’ safety is not threatened, let them know that it is appropriate and necessary to tell an adult.
Talk with your children about which adult, in a particular setting, could help most the next time bullying occurs. Make sure the adult your children turn to will not treat their concerns lightly but will properly deal with bullying behavior.
Avoid/Walk Away. Encourage your children to avoid areas where the bullying is taking place, even if that means taking another hallway or using a different bathroom.
Of course, encountering bullies may be inevitable. If your children encounter bullies who begin picking on them, have your kids practice walking away and simply ignoring them.
Deflect/Use Humor. Deflection can be used to get bullies’ attention on something else for the moment, creating an opportunity for your children to remove themselves from the situation. If your kids have a sense of humor, using humor appropriately could be a working tactic as well.
Take a Stand. If responding to aggression or physical bullying, teach your children to stand up to bullies.
"Be strong and courageous," Moses encouraged God’s people (Deuteronomy 31:6). "Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you."
Encourage your kids with this verse and remind them that the Lord is always with them. Then, practice phrases your kids can say at a time of particular need, such as "please stop" and "that's not cool."
Have your children practice deliberately looking you in the eye and responding. But be sure there is ample space between you as you practice — you don’t want bullies to get the impression that your children want to escalate the encounter into a fight.
It is our job as parents to teach kids how to handle real-life situations with confidence and maturity. Remember to talk through the situation with your children, discuss their options, and then practice at home. Have fun with it so that the exercise does not become a high-pressure situation. Rather, create an opportunity through which your children learn to thrive!
A young teen grabbed another girl by her hair and shoved her to the ground. When the girl hit the concrete, the teen hit her one more time and then walked away. The victim had been one of her friends.
Bystanders would not be able to pick this angry teen — with the violence simmering beneath the surface — from any other at a mall. She looked like the girl next door, except she had embraced a theory: You've got to take care of yourself; get them before they get you.
She explained her philosophy: "If a guy is a player, I'll play him first. If my parents make me mad, I'll make them pay."
Some are calling this breed the "New American Girl." She's more physical, not afraid to be aggressive or go after what she wants, and she takes care of herself. A report from the Population Reference Bureau states that national arrest statistics for simple and aggravated assaults by girls have been climbing for more than a decade and continue to rise.
While some girls resort to violence, others are turning their independence into a positive. They aren't afraid to succeed in sports or politics. They stand up for their convictions. They chase their dreams.
The challenge for parents of girls is to model strength without violence, set limits and consequences and explain how aggression can be destructive to them, their relationships and others.
Babies aren't born with radar telling them how far they can go with their behavior. They learn limitations from their parents. Toddlers may resort to kicking or hitting a parent or sibling when they are angry. This behavior is an invitation for parents to set boundaries.
If a teacher has sent a note home saying that your daughter is being mean to another girl in class, your instinct may be to ignore it or place blame on others. Don't.
A growing social trend among 4- to 7-year-old girls is to label some as "Little Mean Girls." Those girls are the ones who find it socially beneficial to tell lies, secrets or rumors about classmates, to exclude peers or to give others the silent treatment. They use relational aggression.
Step One: Parents should search for the whole story. Is your child the instigator? Does she feel that she has to join in with whatever friends are doing to keep friendships intact? Is she going along with the crowd?
Step Two: Be her role model. If you gossip about the teacher or others in front of your child, she learns to do the same. Let her know that this is unacceptable behavior for everyone, including you.
Step Three: Gently teach spiritual truth. It may be socially acceptable in the second grade to isolate another girl, but show your daughter why it is wrong biblically.
Step Four: Let her know that you are available to listen or talk with her when she feels aggressive toward another person or pressured to join in. Assure her that you will work together to find a more positive way to handle the situation.
A 12-year-old scratches her arm with the sharp edge of a ruler. When her parents confront her, they discover deeper cuts on her legs. If your daughter is self-injuring, your instinct may be to punish her, but this may only increase the risky, self-violent behavior.
The underlying factor behind self-injury is often an inability to express emotions or fears. The 12-year-old heard from her friends that cutting herself would make her feel good, and the release of endorphins do make her feel better, if only temporarily. As a parent, you should:
Is your daughter becoming more violent? Sandy Austin, author and veteran high school counselor on the scene after the Columbine violence, believes there are more stresses in girls' lives, and many are not equipped with healthy ways to deal with their anger and frustrations. "Look for unresolved issues that they may not have processed thoroughly, including losses, rejection, unmet expectations, betrayal and insecurities, and invest in the help they need to work through it."
You can partner in that process. Conflict and frustration is a natural part of life, and teens are watching to see how we deal with it. Don't avoid conflict or paint a false picture of harmony when real issues are simmering in the home. By talking about it and working as a family to resolve conflict, teens learn how they should act or react when they face it themselves.
Bullying. It's a childhood rite of passage. Just ignore it. You'll get over it.
Except most likely you won't. Frank Peretti knows this firsthand. He's one of the many walking wounded who suffered at the hands of classmates — and sometimes teachers. His is a wounded spirit, and he believes a large number of adults carry some kind of psychological hurt from their childhood years. And the cycle continues. A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly a third of children in sixth through 10th grades had either bullied or been bullied.
The best-selling author of supernatural thrillers such as This Present Darkness, The Visitation and The Oath, the 50-year-old Peretti did not have a very pleasant childhood. His was a loving home; the problem came at school but grew from much earlier roots.
Shortly after birth Peretti was diagnosed with cystic hygroma, a growth on the side of his neck that grew so large it threatened to strangle him. Barely two months old, he was rushed to the hospital, where doctors tried to remove as much of the mass as possible. After 10 days in the hospital, he went home, "a tiny bag of bones with a long scar and black sutures that made it appear as if my head had been nearly severed and then sewn back on," he says.
Peretti underwent many surgeries in the following years, and because of his physical struggles his body did not mature as quickly as other children's. Aside from the scar on his neck, the most obvious symptom of his malady was his tongue: swollen to the point it stuck out of his mouth, black, scabby and oozing. If Peretti ever wanted to forget about it, his classmates were sure not to let him. Not only was his tongue grotesque, but it left him with a speech impediment.
Peretti describes his junior high school years, particularly the physical education classes, in harrowing terms. Going into the locker room meant sure torment from the stronger boys — just about everyone, that is. Being slammed up against lockers. Snapped with wet towels. Name-calling. And a coach who seemed not to notice or care. He felt trapped.
Peretti grew up in a Christian home, and "what you learned at home, you conducted yourself accordingly at school: You obey your teachers, you do what the teachers tell you."
Peretti blames the school system's sense that "that's just the way things are" for some of what he endured. "There's the idea that somehow manliness is equated with cruelty; if you're cruel, if you're tough, if you one-up everybody physically, that makes you a man," he says. "That's the way it was in gym class anyway. The teacher's demeanor just permeated the rest of the class. But in that environment, that suck-it-up, no-pain, be-a-man environment, you're not going to complain about being picked on. And Mom and Dad said I had to be there. The teachers said I had to be there. No one, not one adult anywhere, said, 'You know what, Frank? What's happening to you is wrong. You shouldn't be putting up with that.'"
The bullying extended beyond the school yard. At a neighborhood store, where a classmate worked, Peretti needed help finding the deodorant aisle. The boy took him there and pretended to be helpful, picking up a spray can and asking if that was what he needed — just before spraying the deodorant in Peretti's face. In pain and humiliation, Peretti stumbled outside, collapsed on the curb and cried from the deep anguish in his soul.
He retreated into his own world at home, picking up an interest in movie monsters such as Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. "What made monsters cool to me was they were ugly," he says. "They were rejected. They were misunderstood. They were picked on, but the thing about monsters I liked was they seemed to have some kind of control over the situation. They weren't victims. They made victims."
But one teacher finally made a difference. It was something as simple as noticing a downcast young boy and taking the time to ask a simple question: How are you doing? Such concern from an authority figure was a revelation to Peretti, and it inspired him to write a note to the gym teacher, detailing what he had to suffer every day in P.E. class.
"I wrote pages and pages," Peretti says. "I worked on it every free moment that day. I worked on it at home. I just prayed so much when I was writing the letter." He then put the multiple-paged, single-spaced, both-sides-of-the-paper note in the teacher's mail slot.
A few days later, the gym teacher gruffly called Peretti into his office. Peretti was expecting the worst. Incredibly, the coach and a guidance counselor had arranged for Peretti to be exempted from P.E. "He was real kind," Peretti says of the teacher, still sounding a bit amazed. "He smiled at me. I told him, 'If you were a girl, I'd kiss you.' He just smiled back and said, 'You're welcome.' It just took one teacher to care. One teacher to ask me how I was and not make excuses and shrug it off."
Peretti believes more teachers and principals need to show such concern. While in no way excusing Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris, the two gunmen at Columbine High School, Peretti says he does in a way identify with them. "At Columbine, my word, the kids were slammed against lockers, they were squirted and pelted with food in the lunchroom. They were being run off the road by the jocks in their cars. There were kids actually getting to class by going outside the school building and circling around and coming in the other way so they wouldn't be picked on in the hallways, and all this going on in a school environment, and nothing was done about it.
"If you've got the disposition to let anger fester, and that's what happened with Klebold and Harris, something is going to happen. They had so much anger. These guys were pretty warped in the first place, but if I had that kind of disposition, and I was back in seventh grade, and I had Mr. _____ for a gym teacher, and I had a gun, who knows? I was a Christian, so I had a moral base to prevent me from doing anything like that."
But, he is quick to add, many children today do not have that base and are immersed in a culture of violence and decadence.
"Where does it start?" Peretti asks. "At some point in a child's life he becomes the inferior one, the different one, the ugly one, the fat one. For whatever reason that shapes the way he interacts. He becomes retiring, quiet — either that, or overly compensating and defensive. It's like painting a sign around your neck: 'Beat up on me because you'll get away with it.' You begin to expect to be treated that way, and the other kids pick up on that like an animal smelling prey."
And everyone, even victims, can in turn be bullies themselves.
"I think human nature, being what it is, it's kind of the natural thing we do," he says. "It's easy to be mean." He remembers one of his own victims, a boy in his Boy Scout troop. "I remember how I and the other scouts would make him the fall guy. I don't think we were real cruel, but we were hard enough on him."
Girls can be bullies just as much as boys, he adds. "Boys are more into the physical stuff. The girls are more into the social. They'll ostracize, insult, leave out, ignore, put down a girl."
Peretti divides bullies into two basic types. "One is the bully who bullies because he has a deep troubling need of his own. He's picked on or he's got a very unsuccessful life. Trouble at home, an underachiever, for whatever reason, he has a real need to elevate himself by picking on somebody else.
"The other kind of bully is the one you may not expect: the very successful kid. The good student, the athlete, the kid who has everything going for him. He falls into a trap of thinking it's just the cool thing to do, especially with his friends."
Whichever type of bully, the results can have lasting implications. In Peretti's case, they affected a major life decision. He had been accepted at Seattle Pacific University and was in a college office for administrative matters before the school year started.
"Some upperclassman came in — had his letterman's jacket on, big guy — and immediately made some snide comment: 'Oh, this must be a poor, dumb freshman.' I went outside and said it's not going to happen again. I am not going back to the seventh grade. I didn't go to Seattle Pacific University. I didn't go to college until I was 25. That was a life decision born out of a wound that began when I was a child."
And whether bully or bullied, the wounds are often carried for life. He cites a friend whose two boys were being harassed at a Christian school. What made it worse for the dad, however, was that he had been a bully during his school days.
"He said, 'I'm on the other side of this. I still remember the names and faces of the kids I picked on, and I'm troubled today with their memory and the haunting question of whatever happened to them.
'Are they still carrying wounds that I put there?'"