The School Bullies: Helping Kids to Push Back

Special Section “Parenting”, Fayette Woman, May 2009

The central event of Jodi Picoult’s recent novel Nineteen Minutes is every parent’s worst nightmare.  It’s the chilling story of Peter Houghton, a 17-year old boy who, having been bullied by classmates throughout his childhood and teenage years, enacts revenge with a deadly nineteen-minute shooting spree in his school.  However, even as it echoes the Columbine massacre and other real-life school shooting tragedies, Nineteen Minutes is not a black-and-white message of good and evil.  Instead, Picoult spends a great deal of her novel exposing the bullying and cruelty that Peter suffered in all of the years leading up to that horrific day.  While she does not justify the violence of her novel’s main character or, implicitly, the Columbine killers, Picoult makes her point: the ultimate consequences of “ordinary” school bullying can be tragic.

In the ten years that have passed since the Columbine shootings, school bullying has received more media attention than ever before.  Gone are the days when the idea of “bullying” seemed more or less confined to little boys getting knocked down for their lunch money; now, we are aware that bullying encompasses a wide range of behaviors, from direct attacks such as hitting, pushing, threatening, taunting, or ganging up on someone weaker or more vulnerable, to indirect attacks, such as rumor spreading, silent treatment, and excluding others. And while it’s most likely to occur in unsupervised school situations (i.e., at the bus stop, during recess, or in the lunchroom), bullying over the internet has emerged as an insidious and dangerous new form.  In 2007, when news broke of the suicide of a Missouri teenager who was the victim of her adult neighbor’s nasty messages from a fake MySpace account, “cyberbullying” became the focus of a nation’s collective outrage.

It’s no secret that bullying is a widespread problem—so common, in fact, that many parents consider it to be just another difficult part of kids’ journey of growing up.  According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center (NYVPRC), almost 30% of youth in the United States, or over 5.7 million kids, are estimated to be involved in bullying (safeyouth.org).  A different study, conducted by the Maine Project Against Bullying, reported even more startling numbers: 80% of adolescents reported being bullied during their school years, and 90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims (lincoln.midcoast.com).

If nothing else, these numbers dispel the image of the typical bullying victim as an obvious target (i.e., nerdy, overweight, or deficient in social skills). The truth is that anyone can become the target of bullies—even confident, outgoing or popular children.  “Anything, no matter how small, that sets the victim apart from the bully or bullies may be sufficient ‘justification’ in their eyes,” reports the Anti-Bullying Centre of Trinity College, Dublin.  In fact, confidence can be a liability, especially among girls; oftentimes the desire to “cut down” another girl “who thinks she’s all that” motivates exclusion, backbiting, name-calling and rumor- mongering.  And unlike boys, who tend to bully acquaintances or strangers, “girls frequently attack within tightly knit networks of friends, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to victims,” explains Rachel Simmons in Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.

Although we, as parents, generally like to think of our children as resilient and well prepared for life’s challenges, an ongoing campaign of bullying can wear down the self-esteem of just about anyone.  Many times, victims of bullying maintain their silence about what is going on, blaming themselves for somehow inviting the aggression.  The damage is not always manifest in cuts and bruises; instead, the victim may retreat into a silent cocoon of fear, humiliation and unhappiness.

And the damage to victims can be severe. According to the Anti-Bullying Centre, victims of bullying will often experience increased stress, anxiety about going to school, a loss of appetite, the inability to concentrate, a deterioration of or loss of interest in school work, and/or a loss of self esteem.  It’s not unusual for bullying victims to become depressed, develop ulcers, or suffer from nightmares and panic attacks.  Unfortunately, some victims are so severely traumatized by bullies’ campaigns of psychological abuse that they attempt suicide.

Parents should pay careful attention to changes in the behavior of their children (see sidebar, “The Tell Tale Signs”).  If you suspect that bullying is a problem for your child, it is important to encourage her to discuss the situation with you.  Above all, don’t assume that the problem will go away on its own.

If your child is being bullied, she needs you to listen to her story, withhold judgment, and offer help.  You can’t be there in person to protect her at school, but you can be an advocate for her by discussing the problem with teachers, counselors, or administrators.  You can also coach her on how to handle bullying situations.  One of the keys to ending bullying is for your child to exhibit a strong sense of confidence in herself and indifference to the bullying behavior.  It’s no fun for the aggressor if your child refuses to be a victim, so have your child practice shrugging it off or even laughing it off.  Role-playing can be very helpful, as it lets your child practice and prepare her reaction; take turns by letting her be the aggressor and you the victim, then reverse roles.  Let her try out different responses (shrug her shoulders, say “whatever,” laugh back at them) and discuss together what the possible outcomes would be.

Also suggest to your child to stay in groups as much as possible.  She should tell her friends about what is going on and seek their support in standing up to the bully.  That said, it is NOT a good idea to encourage your child to hit or kick a bully, as she could get badly hurt.

Remember that your child’s self esteem may be bruised; remind her of all of her wonderful qualities, and point out that kids often bully because they are unhappy or jealous and want to make themselves feel better.  Try to help your child understand that she did nothing to deserve this treatment, and that it’s the other kid’s problem, not hers. Make sure that she knows you love her unconditionally and are glad to listen to her at any time; it will help her to know that you are her ally.

One other important way you can “push back” against bullying is by raising awareness in your child’s school. Even if your child is not a bullying victim or aggressor at this moment, prevention is better than a cure.  Check with the school’s administrators and counselors to find out what anti-bullying programs are currently in place.  “A good anti-bullying program will help address each of the different roles that children take on in a bullying situation:  the leader, the follower, the victim and the bystanders,” explains Lisa Bergman, a school psychologist in Vernon, Connecticut.  “Also, a good program will include a school bullying committee, with representatives from the faculty and administration, parents, students, bus drivers, and anyone who is part of the school community.”  Find out whether students are encouraged to report bullying incidents to teachers, counselors and administrators.  Since many bullying incidents stem from arguments or simple misunderstandings, see if your school conducts workshops that teach conflict management skills.

As parents, we remember the horrors of the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999, and we are painfully aware that bullying can have serious consequences. It is our responsibility to take action by teaching conflict management to our children and by making sure that our schools have effective and comprehensive bullying programs in place. This might seem like a burden, but it’s not; instead, it’s our opportunity to shape the next generation’s attitudes toward violence and oppression and teach the value of empathy, kindness and tolerance.  Don’t push that opportunity away.  Embrace it.

SIDEBAR

WHY DO PEOPLE BULLY?

While constitutional factors play a part in aggressive behavior, it is recognized that factors within the home, school and wider society influence the development of aggressive behavior.

If aggressive behavior is not challenged in childhood, there is a danger that it may become habitual.  Indeed, there is research evidence, to indicate that bullying during childhood puts children at risk of criminal behavior and domestic violence in adulthood.

Factors which contribute to aggressive behavior in the home are:

* Lack of love and care

* Too much freedom

* Inconsistent discipline

* Permissive management of aggressive behavior

* Violent emotional outbursts on part of adults

* Excessive physical punishment

* Cruelty

Factors which contribute to aggression in school are:

* Inconsistent and inflexible rules

* Poor staff morale

* Inadequate supervision

* Punishment that is too harsh, abusive or humiliating

* Few incentives and rewards for non-aggressive behavior

* Curriculum that affords few feelings of success and achievement

Other factors in wider society include violence portrayed on cinema screens and on television. Research suggests that children who constantly view violence on TV and video develop more aggressive tendencies and less empathy with victims of aggression. This is especially true of children who experience violence in their home and their neighborhood as part and parcel of their daily lives.

Source: The Anti-Bullying Centre of Trinity College, Dublin; http://www.abc.tcd.ie/.  Reproduced with permission.

SIDEBAR:

THE TELL TALE SIGNS

Watch out for:

  • Unexplained bruising, cuts or damaged clothes
  • Visible signs of anxiety or distress – refusal to say what is wrong
  • Unexplained mood swings or behaviour (becoming withdrawn, becoming clinging, attention seeking, aggressive behavior)
  • Out of character behaviour in class
  • Deterioration in educational attainments
  • Loss of concentration
  • Loss of interest in school
  • Erratic attendance
  • Mitching
  • Lingering behind in school after classes are over
  • Increased requests for pocket money or stealing money
  • Loss of or damage to personal possessions or equipment
  • Artwork expressing inner turmoil

Source: The Anti-Bullying Centre of Trinity College, Dublin; http://www.abc.tcd.ie/.  Reproduced with permission.

SIDEBAR:

For more information, see http://stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov, the official anti-bullying website of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. It’s kid-friendly, with stories, activities, games and tops for kids on handling bullying situations, including pages for kids who think that they may have bullied others.  The resource page for adults is excellent and comprehensive, with books, multimedia, programs and campaigns for children, parents, administrators and counselors.  Also, because girls in particular have a tendency to repress feelings of anger and jealousy, they are more likely to become emotionally abusive against other girls and even close friends.  Rachel Simmons’ book Odd Girl Out is an excellent resource on how girls bully other girls (a.k.a. “relational aggression”).  Her work is linked to the Ophelia Project; check out their website at www.opheliaproject.org.