Picture a bully: A big schoolyard menace pushing around a smaller kid, right?
Sure, but here’s how our kids are just as likely to see it:
- A jilted teenager forwards naked photos of his ex-girlfriend to his buddies in revenge.
- A 12-year-old makes a Vine of a teammate’s meltdown to show friends.
- A group of third graders harangues a tablemate with dyslexia who’s slowing them down during class competitions.
- A middle-schooler asks a new Muslim student why she’s a terrorist.
Our kids see bullying every day.
It’s at school. It’s at home on their phones. It doesn’t help when they see someone like Donald Trump getting away with name-calling, mocking a disabled reporter, and other behaviors they learned were wrong back in kindergarten.
But grownups—all of us—far too often excuse it, or miss it.
“There’s still a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality that labels bullying as normal or shrugs it off as ‘just’ teasing, hazing, initiation, or rivalry,” says psychologist Brendan Pratt, PhD, who works with bullied kids of all ages at The Pratt Center in Los Altos, California. “Even demeaning language and rudeness are seen as signs of ‘being strong.’”
Oh, and if you’ve been picturing a boy while reading this, rewind. Girls bully, too—often in groups and in stealthier ways that make it harder to get caught, he adds.
What we’re talking about:
Bullying has two big defining traits, Pratt says:
1) Intention. One kid means to hurt another.
2) A power difference. One kid deliberately mistreats another who he or she views as somehow less powerful to gain a sense of control.
Growing up in the digital world has only made the meanness easier—and sneakier. Now in the bully’s toolbox: texts, social apps, video-sharing, phone calls, revenge websites.
All that classic rough stuff is still around, too, from name calling and mocking to sexual comments, starting rumors, social exclusion, impersonating someone, defacing belongings, extorting money—and outright shoving, tripping, and punching.
Almost any kid can be on the receiving end.
Even a small difference—an unusual voice, the “wrong clothes”—can make a kid a target. Looks, body shape, and race are the top three reasons students report being bullied, found the 2010 Penn State Youth Voice Research Project.
Interestingly, though, bullies often don’t want to seem too obvious. They might avoid especially defenseless targets, like those in wheelchairs or with Down syndrome, because they know how bad that would look, Pratt says.
Kids with more subtle differences tend to be bullied more often—including 60 percent of those with Asperger’s, for example—according to the National Bullying Prevention Center. Among kids who identify as LGBTQ, one in three surveyed said they’d missed a day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
Three things make bullying worse:
Problem 1: Kids aren’t eager to report being picked on.
One in four students report being bullied during the school year, says the National Center for Education Statistics. But only one third of them report it. So it’s happening far more often than parents and teachers realize.
“From a kid’s perspective, it’s humiliating to be bullied,” Pratt says. “And then it’s humiliating again to tell someone else. They’re really hesitant to talk about it.”
They’re often afraid we’ll think they’re stupid or weak, or just be mad at them.
They’d rather stay silent and hope it goes away.
It usually doesn’t.
That means it’s up to us to know what to look for. Among the signs:
- refusing to suit up for PE (a lot of bullying happens in locker rooms)
- begging to be driven to school or picked up (instead of walking or the bus)
- suddenly losing a lot of things or money
- refusing to go to school
- seeming more lonely or irritable
- complaining of headaches or stomachaches, often in the morning before school
Little surprise that kids who experience bullying are at higher risk of school problems, sleep trouble, substance use, anxiety, depression, and even suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kids who are bullied can even become so isolated that they finally lash out and bully others—or explode in other violent ways. Sad fact: When the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education studied 37 school shootings, they found that two-thirds of the shooters had been bullied.
Problem 2: Adults don’t always see bullying for what it is.
“Even when kids or teachers report bullying, parents often won’t believe it or minimize it,” Pratt says.
The phrase that really drives him nuts: Boys will be boys. “That’s reciprocal, two boys being rambunctious. Not one boy being teased or one boy pinning down another boy who’s helpless,” he says.
Bullying doesn’t make kids “tougher” or “more resilient.” It’s not a “part of growing up” that “all kids go through.” It’s not “a normal part of childhood.”
Another way complaints are often dismissed is by saying, “Oh, you’re too sensitive.” That says to a child we think it’s normal to be teased, taunted, excluded, or harassed.
Problem 3: We still tend to blame the victim.
What kids on the receiving end of bullying DON’T need: Being blamed as if it’s because of something they’ve done to cause it, or being encouraged to deal with it on their own.
Besides being unfair to kids, advice that focuses on things the victim should do differently—stand up straighter, try harder, play more sports, make eye contact, and so on—is just not effective, Pratt says.
We need to do the opposite: Reassure kids that it’s not their fault that someone is singling them out—and that doing so is WRONG.
What kids need us to do about bullying:
Believe them. If a kid raises an issue persistently, we absolutely need to take it seriously. Sure, it’s possible the child simply IS too sensitive and might benefit from better social skills or some kind of help, Pratt says. “But they still don’t deserve to be mistreated. What parents need to do initially is agree to look into it.”
One reliable rule of thumb, Pratt has found: If a child says “everyone” mistreats them, the issue may have more to do with their sensitivities or social skills. (And these should be addressed.) If he or she says one specific person is doing it, that’s a strong indicator of bullying.
Avoid freaking out. Among the worst things we can do:
- Tell our kids to “suck it up” (dismissive) or “fight back” (dangerous).
- Make them work it out on their own or hope it goes away. A group effort is almost always needed.
- Confront the bully (or his or her parents) on our own. Better to work through the school, Pratt and other experts say.
- Take away their phone as a protective measure if it’s cyber-bullying; that just feels like punishment.
Keep a written record. Not doing so from the start is parents’ #1 mistake, according to Pratt. We might get upset about an incident but mentally set it aside. The next time it happens, we’re further upset but still don’t write anything down. By the third event, we call the principal in a fury—who says, “Well this is the first time I’m hearing about it.”
When there’s an incident of bullying, write down exactly what happened, the time and date, who was there, so there’s a clear paper trail, Pratt advises. Share the written report with the school.
One silver lining to cyberbullying, he says, is that there’s usually a clear physical record of it. You can take a screenshot of texts, for example, and many companies keep posts that have been deleted.
Try to work with the school. Bullying is hugely a school-based behavior. And all schools have a legal obligation to protect all their students, says the National Bullying Prevention Center. Depending on the situation, you might ask about increased supervision, especially at vulnerable times, like in restrooms or PE.
These things help bullied kids, too, according to the federal Stop Bullying program and other experts:
Telling a grown-up. Reassure your child that reporting incidents isn’t tattling, because bullying is wrong. Talking to someone they trust is always right.
Bringing in reinforcements. Being bullied can be isolating. But sticking around adults and friendly kids, or using a buddy system where possible, minimizes incidents.
Responding calmly. Let your child know it’s okay to say “Stop” or “leave me alone.” But if doing so calmly is too hard, just leave.
Showing zero tolerance. Enduring a little bit of teasing or name-calling, especially online, can make it continue, say Sameer Hindujah and Justin W. Patchin, co-founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center. Better for kids to use account and privacy settings within each device, app, or network to control contacts, they say, and just shut out the bully talk.
Getting involved in positive outside activities. Great activities are those that embrace all participants (martial arts is often a good choice) and help a child feel more confident and competent (music, math or coding teams, art)—building up what bullying might otherwise erode.
The end of bullying?
Ultimately, the more that bystanders—other students, teachers, administrators, parents—actively refuse to tolerate a behavior, the better off everyone is, research shows.
A lot comes down to school culture. Some places simply do a better job than others of training staff (from teachers to bus drivers and lunch workers) about being proactive about stopping bullying and teaching kids about the problem.
At home, even really basic stuff helps, say those working to end bullying: letting kids know we love them, hear them, and are taking them seriously.
It also helps when we show that we think everyone deserves respect by calling out bullying when we see it—in movies we watch together, in the news, anywhere—and refusing to tolerate it.
Bullies talk big and act all blustery—but only as long as they can get away with it. Their desire to feel BIG, STRONG, GREAT doesn’t trump everyone else’s safety, sanity, dignity, and happiness. Ever.
Photos and videos from top: Pimkie/Flickr, “Bullying-Stop It”/YouTube (4), Maryland GovPicks/Flickr