How to Deal With Bullying

A mom sits with her teen in front of a computer screen, and the teen has a pained look on her face
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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.

What is bullying, and how bad is this problem?

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:

  • Verbal. Insults, name-calling, racial or ethnic slurs. These are experienced equally by boys and girls, and represent the most common form of bullying.
  • Physical. Hitting, kicking, shoving or other direct bodily injury, as well as destruction
  • Social. Spreading gossip and rumors (often sexually related), exclusion or outright isolation. These are more common forms of bullying among girls.
  • Electronic. "Cyberbullying" on the Internet or through other electronic devices such as text messaging on cell phones.Health Resources and Services Administration, "All About Bullying," part of the organization's "Stop Bullying Now!" online campaign, http://stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov/adult/indexAdult.asp?Area=allaboutbullying; National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, "Bullying Facts and Statistics," http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/faq/bullying.asp.

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.Jaana Juvonen, Sandra Graham, and Mark A. Schuster, "Bullying among Young Adolescents: The Strong, the Weak, and the Troubled," Pediatrics 112, no. 6 (December 2003): 1231–1237, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/112/6/1231.  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.Tonja R. Nansel et al., "Bullying Behaviors among U.S. Youth: Prevalence and Association with Psychosocial Adjustment," Journal of the American Medical Association 285, no. 16 (April 25, 2001): 2094–2100, cited in http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/faq/bullying.asp. 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.B. Vossekuil et al., The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States (a report from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, May 2002).

What can be done about bullying? Preventing, detecting and responding to bullying require involvement of parents, schools, churches and (when necessary) law enforcement.

Your involvement

Be aware of the following indicators that may indicate a child is being harassed:

  • Injuries — unexplained bruises, cuts or scratches
  • Torn, damaged or missing clothing or other belongings
  • Anxiety, tearfulness, moodiness and resistance to going to school
  • Ongoing physical symptoms — especially headaches, stomachaches or fatigue — that are invoked as a reason to stay home

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.

What if your child is accused of bullying?

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.

How to prevent bullying

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.

Adapted from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1999, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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