The idea of childhood bullying has gone mostly unnoticed until the current events at Columbine and Santana High School brought this childhood dynamic to the forefront. It is now receiving widespread attention and is recognized as a serious problem throughout elementary, middle and high school. Some reports state that at least two thirds of all shootings involve kids who say they were bullied in school. The following is a good definition of bullying: A negative situation that occurs regularly and repeatedly perpetrated by an aggressive student who is trying to control a weaker or more vulnerable one. The act of bullying involves an implied threat of physical harm and also some form of intimidation. To deal with bullying requires parents to both recognize when their child is being bullied, and when their child is being a bully.
As we have seen with recent events, the victims of bullying are often reluctant to report it. That means parents have to become extremely observant in identifying whether or not their child is being bullied. Victims generally feel if they tell someone in authority then the bullying and teasing will only intensify. So they remain silent. When a child is being bullied they are often pushed around, taunted, have their books thrown to the floor, their papers ripped and torn, their homework stolen, or they are teased and humiliated. Consequently, the physical signs to look for are scuffed books, torn papers, lost homework, and clothes that are in disarray or show signs of struggle. Additionally, there may be some bumps and bruises from being pushed to the ground. Students who are being “shaken down” for money by a bully may come up with a host of reasons requiring you to give them extra money for school. Sometimes the same signs that we look for in depression also apply to students who are being bullied. Their grades slip, they are pessimistic, they have frequent mood swings and outbursts of anger, they do not sleep well and sometimes have bad dreams, and are socially isolated. Sometimes students complain of having a headache or stomachache, act very sullen in the morning and do not want to go to school.
The person who is doing the bullying is generally an aggressive child who likes to exert power and control over other people. These children may be very compliant at home, but at school they empower themselves at the expense of other students. More typically, however, the bully is aggressive at home as well. Sometimes these children openly brag about their exploits and exaggerate the importance of their accomplishments. They may be overly defiant and intimidating. The most obvious sign, however, is if they are oppositional to the point that involves law enforcement. Many studies show a strong connection between antisocial behavior and bullying.
Since most bullying activity occurs at school, the support of the school system is essential in curbing the problem. Parents primarily need to establish a working collaboration with their child’s teacher, the school counselor and principal. With the help of the school, children who are being bullied will feel supported, and parents will feel comfortable knowing that the issue is being addressed. Try to approach the school as a concerned parent, not as one who is demanding something be done about the problem. Parents stand a better chance of enlisting the help of the school by giving them information, and seeking to understand their approach to the problem, rather than by reacting too strongly. Other guidelines parents can use when dealing with a bully are:
1) To remain open and listen earnestly if your child is telling you of a school related problem.
2) To make your child feel that they did the best they could to protect themselves.
3) Not to give strategies designed to stop the bullying since they usually make the child feel as if it is their fault, something they have already heard by the bully.
4) To stay calm and not seek revenge.
5) To figure out with your child some safe places that he can retreat to if he fears for his safety.
6) Not to encourage retaliation as that generally escalates the situation.
7) Not to contact the bullying person’s family directly. Sometimes these meetings end up in more severe forms of confrontation.
Many times a bully will pick on children who are weaker, undersized, have ADHD or learning disabilities, or who have low self-esteem and can’t defend themselves physically or emotionally. Getting your child involved in sports may help your child vent some frustration, and also build physical strength and self-confidence. Additionally, a self-defense course may help your child’s self-esteem by giving him a sense of self-protection. Assertiveness training will also help. Increasing social skills and teaching your child how to present himself in a way that is socially appropriate may make your child less of a target as well. Bullies naturally target those students who are different, so by being too much of individual your child may inadvertently be attracting negative attention.
Although most of the studies on bullying behavior tend to focus on boys, there is some evidence that bullying behavior also exists in girls. With girls, the bullying is subtler. Girls will tend to ostracize and spread rumors about the girls they are bullying, making them outcasts. Girls will also bully in groups, sometimes inviting boys to participate, which is emotionally and socially crushing for the victim. The end result is same as it is with boys, low self-esteem, social isolation, and internalized feelings of anger.
The best defense against bullying is to make sure you are aware of the signs, and you keep the lines of communication open between you and your child. As stated, many situations involving bullying go unnoticed, making it even more important for parents to be in touch with their children. Parents, therefore, are the best deterrent to the long standing effects of bullying. By being aware of the signs and symptoms of bullying, not dismissing or minimizing what your child tells you, keeping the lines of communication open, and not being afraid to call the school and get involved you stand a greater chance of protecting your children from the damaging effects of this insidious childhood problem.
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About the AuthorLarry Laveman, LCSW, BCD, is a Psychotherapist and Author in Solana Beach, California. His publications include topics on marriage counseling, supervision, mental health and spirituality. He is the former Chief Clinical Director for Harmonium, Inc., a community based nonprofit organization specializing in children, adolescents and families. You can find contact him via Google +, LinkedIn, or this website's contact page.