As summer ends and kids get ready to head back to school, there are all sorts of worries that run through their minds: Will I like my teacher? What if it’s too hard? Is the cafeteria still going to have Meatball Mondays? While those concerns are fairly harmless, not every worry is quite so innocent. For some kids, the new school year also brings the fear that they’ll be called mean names, get ridiculed by classmates, or even be physically intimidated or harmed. For others, classroom cruelty may be part of a vicious cycle that started with feeling unsafe at home.
In HelloJoey’s “Redefining Bullying,” we look at the most recent research about bullying to explain what it is, some of the reasons it happens, and what parents can do if their children are involved. We also talk with experts who offer insights on how you can model healthy ways to handle anger or frustration to help your child learn better solutions than picking on their peers when they feel threatened or upset.
The facts about bullying
You’ve probably heard a lot about bullying – and especially online bullying or cyber bullying, but up until more recent years, many parents didn’t necessarily see it as a serious problem. It’s a rite of passage! Kids will be kids! Everyone gets teased! In truth, bullying has become an issue that’s too dangerous to simply dismiss or ignore. It can start as early as kindergarten, and the effects – like depression and anxiety – can linger far into adolescence and adulthood.
You might not be aware of exactly how prevalent bullying is, but chances are high your child has at least some experience with it. According to research:
nine out of 10 elementary school students have been bullied by their peers.
there are approximately 2.1 million kids who bully and 2.7 million who are bullied in the US.
60% of middle school students say that they have been bullied, but only 16% of staff believe students at their school are bullied.
bullying tends to peak between ages 10 and 12.
children with learning, emotional, physical, developmental or sensory disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied.
67% of students believe that schools respond poorly to bullying and that adult attention is infrequent and ineffective.
Clearly, it’s a problem – and one with which our children are dealing on a daily basis.
What counts as bullying?
To make matters even muddier, there’s a lot of confusion about what bullying actually is. “Often, people we just don't like are described as bullies, and they aren't necessarily bullies,” says psychologist Dr. Ruth Burtman. “When somebody's feelings get hurt, it doesn't necessarily mean they were bullied.” True bullying is actually a little more complicated, as she explains. “It's never one incident. It's repeated over time, and there's a power imbalance between the bully and the victim that’s either observed or perceived.”
In fact, specific guidelines have been established to help parents, teachers, and kids understand exactly what counts as bullying – and what doesn’t. For a certain behavior to qualify as bullying, it must meet all four of the following criteria:
Aggression – behavior that’s physically, verbally or socially aggressive
Repetition – behavior that’s repeated over time (not an isolated incident)
Power Imbalance – someone must have a real or perceived upper hand
Intent – behavior that purposefully tries to hurt someone else
While most of those are fairly straightforward, a power imbalance is sometimes a little difficult to identify. School social worker Emily Kaiser explains how it often shows up among kids age six to nine. “It's mostly over abilities. Kids will make fun of either physical things in the schoolyard or things in the classroom like academics or core test grades.” As they get older, it tends to shift to social standing, with relational bullying becoming the most common form of aggression. That includes gossip, rumors, exclusion, and rejection – like not getting invited to a party or getting ridiculed for not having the right clothes or phone to fit in with their peers.
What to do about bullies
If you learned your child was being bullied, the first thing you’d probably do is report it to the school and ask for help, but you might be surprised by the reaction you get. Some schools suspend bullies, some do nothing at all, and some even brush it off as “self-confident behavior.” That can be frustrating, but continuing to work with your child’s teachers, principal, and administrators to institute changes may ultimately make a difference. Studies show that in schools that have anti-bullying programs, bullying can be reduced by 50%.
Research also shows that both bullying and being bullied have been proven to change over time with interventions that hit at many levels – including classrooms, teachers, schools, communities, and homes. Dr. Burtman says you can support this by creating a safe space where your kids can talk freely. “How do we help bullies, victims, and bystanders learn to cope with what has gone on – and how to change it? The number one rule of thumb is to create a place for open dialogue – a safe space – with parents, teachers, or communities, or, preferably, all three.”
Additionally, school social worker Emily Kaiser reminds parents that understanding the child who is bullying is just as important as protecting the child being bullied. “People don't do things just to do them; they lack the ability to verbally communicate something that they're feeling. It can be hard to empathize with the perpetrator, but it's a core part of understanding why people have these behaviors.” Bullying can be a sign of an unhealthy or unsafe home environment and may be a cry for help. Knowing why a child is acting out is the first step to solving the problem.
You’ve probably noticed that as your kid gets older and more aware, they focus less on what you say and more on what you do. That means you have a great opportunity to teach your child how handle emotions in healthy ways. “It's so important for parents to model how to appropriately have all of the emotions, from the way you respond to a board game or a sport event to sitting in traffic,” stresses Emily. “As a human, you get angry – but are you angry in a safe way?”
Dr. Burtman agrees. “How do we bounce back after a difficult day, poor test score, an illness, or a loss in an athletic event? All of those are opportunities for building resilience and empathy. When anybody has a tough day at school or work, it's helpful to share it with our family and let them know what they can do to make it better.” By talking your child through challenges, you can teach them to think about how others feel and to deal with their emotions in healthier ways than resorting to aggression or bullying.
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