If you have been paying attention you have heard that bullying has led to depression, anxiety, suicide and even school violence. So what is real bullying anyway? It wasn’t until I was an adult that I really have given any thought to what a bully might be. It was not something that was talked about a lot when I was in school. There are movies that portrayed the big, muscular jock stuffing some small, nerdy guy in the locker. There are scenes from The Christmas Story when Ralphie is terrorized by Scut Farkus. So, yes I saw it and I knew what a bully was, but I most likely would have said that I didn’t know anyone that would fit that stereotype.
Looking back, I had friends that were called names for all of their middle and high school years. I remember things that happened on the playground between girls. It usually included 3 or 4 girls leaving the 1 girl out...except it was always the same girl. So, is that bullying?
As parents, how do we know if our kids are being bullied, if they are the bully or if they are bystanders to bullying? Kids have heard the term and may have used it, but what does it really mean? How can we equip our kids to know how to speak up for themselves and their friends and how do we make sure that our kids don’t become the bully? Let’s start from the beginning...
What Is Bullying?
Bullying is an unwanted behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, has the potential to be repeated, over time. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must include:
An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others.
Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying is NOT just saying something mean when in an argument with someone or in one type conflict.
Types of Bullying
Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean, hurtful things. Verbal bullying includes:
Verbal or written threats to do harm
Physical bullying involves physically hurting a person or their possessions. Physical bullying includes:
Taking or breaking someone’s things
Making rude hand gestures
Social bullying or relational bullying, involves out casting someone or embarrassing someone and hurting their relationships or reputation. Social bullying includes:
Leaving someone out on purpose
Telling other children not to be friends with someone
Spreading rumors about someone
Embarrassing someone in public
Bullying can occur anywhere from the playground, the bus, baseball team, church or the neighborhood. However, the internet has created a whole new dimension to bullying. It is unique because it can create an all access, 24 hour platform to humiliate or attack a person for the public to see. It also provides opportunities for harassment and bullying anonymously through fake accounts.
What is Cyberbullying?
Is the latest form of social and relational bullying. It includes sending, posting or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. This content can be shared through social media or any form of text messaging. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.
Why Cyberbullying is So Dangerous?
Persistent – Digital devices offer an ability to immediately and continuously communicate 24 hours a day, so it can be difficult for children experiencing cyberbullying to find relief.
Permanent – Most information communicated electronically is permanent and public, if not reported and removed. A negative online reputation, including for those who bully, can impact college admissions, employment, and other areas of life.
Hard to Notice – Because teachers and parents may not overhear or see cyberbullying taking place, it is harder to recognize.
Effects of Bullying
Depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy.
Feelings of anger, lashing out at loved ones or even themselves.
Health complaints, stomach aches or headaches.
Decreased academic achievement and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.
How do I know?
It is common for children to not report bullying to their parents or other trusted adults. Some reasons for this may be that they are embarrassed or feel ashamed of what has been said or done to them. Some kids may be afraid of what will happen if the bullying knows they have told. Other kids may not want the attention that will be placed on them when adults know they are being bullied. If you read the effects of bullying above and see some of these signs in your child, it is time that you talk to them about their experiences at school and in other social settings. Typically, young elementary age children experience verbal and physically bullying first with a transition to more relational bullying into the middle school and high school years.
What do I do?
It is important for parents to begin the conversations with kids about how to handle bullying, whether they are the victim, the bully or the bystander. A great place to start is by helping your child understand their self worth and who God has made them to be. This can be as simple as helping them with words to describe themselves. I am strong. I am brave. I am smart. I am kind. When your child has a sense of who they are, it can equip them to handle what is said to them or about them. This doesn’t mean the words will not hurt, but it will give them a baseline to be able to recognize the truth of who they are versus an insulting lie someone is saying to them to cause harm.
Most people who bullying are in some way hurting themselves. They may have felt insecure and find that they feel better when they make others feel bad about themselves. They may have had a life event that was abusive or traumatic. They may have been bullied themselves and feel empowered to do it to someone else.
Unresolved anger within children can lead to bullying behaviors. Some bullying behaviors can even be learned from what they experience in their own home. So, one way to look at bullying is to realize that sometimes hurting people like to hurt people. Again, this doesn’t make the bullying less hurtful or embarrassing, but it does give some perspective.
It is also helpful to prepare your child for encounters with their bully if they have to be in contact with them on a regular basis. If bullying continues to be unresolved, your child may act out in physical or verbal aggression to defend themselves or to let out steam. If possible, give them words and role play what they can stay when confronted. Make sure they know who the trusted adults are in their school. If necessary, talk with our child's teacher, principal or guidance counselor to help address the issue.
How do I talk to my child about being a bystander to bullying?
Listen to your children when they talk about school friends. If you hear conversations about someone being “popular” or if they report unkind things others have said, use that opportunity to talk to them about kindness and including others in their play activities. The Golden Rule always applies. For older kids, this may be harder to catch because it is happening on social media or in their text messaging. It is important that you have some insight into this part of their world. Setting up healthy social media and messaging boundaries with your teen is vital. Teaching our children to be kind to one another starts in our home settings. Learning how to speak up and speak out can be such a powerful thing for your child to be able to do for themselves.
If your child has been a victim of bullying and you are seeing emotional or behavioral signs that you need help with, talking with a counselor can help your child process through these negative experiences and learn tools to cope with it now and in the future.
Kelsey Dennis, LCSW