By UCS Director of Specialized Children’s Services Lorna Mattern
Every day thousands of children and teens wake up afraid to go to school. Bullying is a problem that affects millions of children. Often, parents, teachers and other adults don’t see it, so they do not understand how extreme bullying can get, and when they do see it, what then?
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Kids who are bullies use their power-such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information or their popularity-to harm or control others. The behavior is repeated over time, often relentless.
There are generally 3 types of bullying; physical, social, and verbal. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions and can include punching, kicking, tripping or even sexual assaults and breaking personal items. Social bullying involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships through spreading rumors, embarrassing them in public or telling others not to be friends with that person. Verbal bullying involves saying or writing mean things such as taunting, threatening harm, or name calling. Verbal bullying can also take the form of cyber bullying by sending threatening texts or posting insults on Facebook. It is important to remember is that this is repeated over and over again, often daily.
Bullying can occur anywhere. While most students report that bullying happens within the school building, many report being bullied on the bus, on the play ground, in their own neighborhood, and on the internet. According to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Center for Disease Control) 20% of students in grade 9-12 reported that they experienced bullying.
Generally, the children who are at risk of being bullied are those who are perceived as being different from their peers, are perceived as weak, are depressed or have low self esteem, have very few friends and or do not get along with others well and may be seen as annoying.
One of the most painful aspects of bullying is that it is relentless. Most young people can withstand a little ribbing here or there or being excluded from going shopping with friends one time. However, when it occurs daily, it can put a youth in constant fear or generalized anxiety. Children who are bullied are at risk of developing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, increased feeling of loneliness, and low self-esteem or self-worth. They may think about suicide. Other problems can occur as well. Children may start to have stomach pains as the result of the stress (or other physical manifestations), experience difficulty sleeping, a loss of interest in activities, and school failure, to name a few.
Kids who are bullied don’t generally ask for help. Statistics from the 2008-2009 School Crime Supplement reported that an adult was notified in only about a third of bullying cases. Kids don’t tell adults for many reasons:
- They feel helpless, they feel they will be seen as weak, or that they will be a tattletale.
- Kids fear backlash from the bully.
- Young people are humiliated by the experience of being bullied. They fear that adults won’t believe them or won’t respond.
- They don’t feel that people care.
If kids don’t tell, how would you know if your child, or a child you know, is being bullied? First, it is important to look for and notice changes in the child. Of course, not all children show warning signs but when they do, they often look like this: they have unexplained injuries, lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, etc, frequent headaches or feeling sick, difficulty sleeping, declining grades, sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, feelings of helplessness or self-destructive behavior which could include talking about suicide or abusing substances.
- Talk about it. Very simply, keep the lines of communication open. Help kids understand what bullying is and how to get help.
- Talk about how to stand up to kids who bully. Give tips, like using humor or saying stop confidentially; talk about walking away and telling a trusted adult.
- Listen and focus on the child. Learn what’s been going on and show you want to help.
- Assure the child that bullying is not their fault.
- Work together to resolve the situation and protect the child. Work with school and other organizations to help the child to feel safe. The child should not be singled out. If changes need to be made such as a different class schedule, the child who is bullied should not be the one whose schedule/routine should be changed.
- Be persistent. Bullying will not stop overnight. Consistently support the bullied child, show commitment to making bullying stop, continue to report bullying behavior to appropriate people.
- Avoid these mistakes: do not blame the child for being bullied, do not tell the child to “just ignore” the bully, and do not tell the child to “fight back”.
- Model respectful and caring behavior.
- Let the child know how to get help. One of the most important things the child can do is to talk to a parent or other trusted adult. If the bullying is happening at school, talk to a counselor or principal. If the child does not want to talk alone to an adult, encourage them to bring a friend or ally with them.
Did you know that if one person watching a bullying situation says “stop it”, half the time the bullying will stop? This can be hard to do, even for adults, but when you stand by and do nothing, that’s saying that bullying is okay with you. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. Imagine if everyone who witnessed bullying – whether at school, in the workplace or at home – stood up and said clearly and strongly that it wasn’t going to be tolerated.
Bullying would very quickly be a thing of the past.