Originally posted Sept. 1, 2008
Noah's first encounter with a bully happened while he was still
in diapers, when another two-year-old shoved him off his sunny
perch atop a little-tykes picnic table. A stunned Noah
retaliated with a toothy bite to the other boy's leg and a stunned
me fretted that my son was being bullied by a baby-thug - and
becoming one himself.
No one likes a bully. But you know what? Chances are
pretty good that the bully knows this, and feels the same.
Serves him right, you say? If all you're concerned about is
keeping your children away from 'the big, bad bully,' I have news
for you: you're part of the problem, not the solution.
There's more to a bully than meets the eye. I really
bristle at the word "bully" as I try to imagine his story.
Sometimes kids bully because they have a deep need for belonging
but lack the social skills to successfully cultivate
friendships. They aren't born to bully, but develop that
tough exterior in response to and in defense against how they are
treated. If you're the parent of a bully's target, however,
it makes sense that appreciating this would be difficult. But
consider that there might be a world of pain behind those fists and
that name-calling. You know the one about the guy who comes
home from a day of working for a tyrant and kicks the dog?
The same thing applies here. When a person feels a lack of
control in one area of his life he sometimes compensates by
over-controlling in other areas. It's actually an interesting
survival mechanism, an unconscious way of creating balance.
Think of bullying behavior as a symptom or flag, an unconscious
S.O.S. for help.
We typically think of bullies as thugs who intimidate little
kids 'til they surrender their lunch money or trip them up as they
walk home from school, but the thugs aren't always boys - or even
children. We've all seen shocking videos of high school girls
literally attacking other girls. And who can forget the
tragic case of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier who committed suicide
after a period of cyber-bullying perpetrated by an adult who posed
as a teenaged boy on-line? Being the target of chronic
bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, school avoidance,
declining grades and to other devastating conclusions, according to
campus shooters who, in suicide notes, point to bullying as a
factor in their undoing. Such was the case of Cho Seung Hui,
who perpetrated the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead.
Did you know that roughly 25% of American school children report
being bullied and that 20% acknowledge doing the bullying (source:
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services)? Bullying is a
serious public health issue. As parents we can help
to stem the bullying tide. Understand that extremely
permissive parenting can allow bullying tendencies to flower, and
recognize that the opposite extreme is of equal concern: stop
being a bully yourself. When you're rude to a waiter or
gossip about a neighbor, creating an environment where she is
excluded, do you think your kids don't notice? Bullying often
starts at home. If children grow up in hostile family
environments, where they see a power imbalance exploited to
intimidate or harm another, they can learn to become victims or
perpetrators of hostility themselves. If this sounds like
your family, consider this: do you really want your daughter to
grow up believing that it's ever okay for her to be treated with
hostility or to demean another person?
A few years after the baby-bully incident, Noah came face to
face with the real deal. Two weeks into Kindergarten he
encountered a much larger Kindergartener on the school bus who was
a year older than he and who gave him an overzealous noogie and
then repeatedly slammed his head into the seat in front of
him. This, according to a Mom riding the bus who'd seen the
incident unfold. She said she was too shocked to intervene,
was unwilling to report the incident because of her friendship with
his parents, and only mentioned it to me out of concern for why
Noah didn't stand up for himself.
That he never even told me blew me away. Not a peep.
I cried buckets.
Sometimes kids don't tell for fear of retaliation from the
bully, or fear that they will be perceived as cry-babies. I
spoke up, however, and expressed that while I expected consequences
for the boy, it mattered as much that someone figure out why it
happened to begin with.
Once a bullying crisis passes, be careful not to foreclose on
the possibility that your child and the bully might become
friendly, if not friends. As for Noah and his baby-bully,
they developed into preschool pals. The kid from the bus
actually came over to apologize, and he and Noah ended up playing
in the backyard while his Mom and I chatted nearby.
Teach your kids strategies for dealing with bullies (see tips
below), but be part of the solution and model for them the most
important things of all: respect for others and compassion for
those who bully. It's okay to teach forgiveness and grace
while you set limits and protect your kids.
Tips for Parents
Insist that your school creates and follows through on their
bullying and harassment policies, and suggest that supervision be
beefed up in known bullying 'hotspots' like lunchrooms, bathrooms
and school busses
Remind children that stopping to stare when they see bullying in
progress just adds fuel to the fire. Without an audience of
bystanders many bully-dramas fizzle out. Teach children to
report bullying behavior, and make sure they know the difference
between telling and tattling.
If your child is bullied, coach him to walk away from a bully's
taunts. Though it may seem unrealistic, role-play how your
child might respond. Teach him to firmly say "Please stop,
you're hurting me / my feelings." Sometimes this stops a
bully in his tracks.
Kids are less vulnerable to bullying if they develop friendships
and use the buddy system. Encourage them to befriend kids who
get picked on, too.
Most important, make sure children understand that bullying
isn't their fault
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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