Bullying Prevention Month
by Kristin Cannon, Annika Menges, and Jenna Wagemester
What is Bullying?
As we begin Bullying Prevention Month this October, it is important to know exactly what bullying is and how it is similar and different from other interactions. The common words that are used when talking about bullying and related behaviors are rude, mean, and bullying. Let’s explore those to better understand the phrases that are used, with definitions and examples from Signe Whison, an author and educator who specializes in bullying prevention.
- Rude: a person is being rude when they inadvertently say or do something that hurts someone else. This might look like bragging about a grade or cutting in the lunch line.
- Mean: a person is being mean when they purposefully say or do something to hurt someone once or twice. A person who is being mean could say, “You’re so dumb” or “That’s the ugliest skirt I have ever seen.”
- Bullying: a person is bullying when they are intentionally aggressive, repeatedly and over time, and have the upper hand in a power imbalance. Bullying has many different forms, including cyberbullying (through the use of technology), physical, verbal, or relational (using friendships to hurt someone).
Types of Bullying
The American Psychological Association defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words, or more subtle actions.” As described, bullying can take place and present in a variety of ways. The most common and all-encompassing forms are physical, verbal, and cyber.
Physical bullying does not have to look like cinematic head-in-the-toilet bullying. This form of bullying can involve shoving, hitting, pushing, damaging property, spitting, stealing, etc. Physical bullying often takes place in more secluded areas, such as under stairwells, in bathrooms, or in parking lots.
Verbal bullying is a more common form of bullying, being that it can easily go unnoticed in comparison to physical bullying. Verbal bullying covers a range of targeted comments, statements, and/or threats. Bullying can look like frequent rude and insulting commentary, name-calling, humiliating remarks, and/or slurs.
Similar to verbal bullying, cyberbullying is very accessible. Cyberbullying has become increasingly prevalent in today’s society due to the upsurge in technology and social media platforms. Cyberbullying is a complex form of bullying that can take place on a variety of technology platforms, with several different means of targeting an individual or group of people. Cyberbullying can involve the spreading of lies or threatening and/or abusive direct messages, identity impersonation, harassment, and blackmail. This form. of bullying can also involved the attachment of disrespectful images, videos, and other additives. Cyberbullying, different from physical or verbal bullying, can take place anonymously and quickly fall in the laps of other cyber bystanders.
Signs and Symptoms
Now that you have a better understanding of what bullying can look like, you may be asking yourself, “Well how can I tell if my child/teen is getting bullied or bullying others?” In both cases, you may notice behavioral and presentation changes in your child.
Signs that your child may be getting bullied, from www.stopbullying.gov include:
- Changes in eating, drinking, and appetite habits
- Changes in sleep patterns and hygiene
- Unexplainable injuries
- Patterns of sickness or faking sickness
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches
- Lost or damaged personal belongings
- Poor academic performance
- Avoidance of social situations
- Withdrawal from self
- Self-destructive behavior (ex. running away, defiant actions, self-harm)
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and decreased self-esteem
Signs that your child may be doing the bullying, from www.stopbullying.gov include:
- Patterns of trouble, detention, or behavioral concerns at school
- Patterns of defiant, disobedient, or aggressive behavior
- Has friends who bully others
- Increasingly competitive
- Has trouble accepting responsibility for their own actions
- Pattern of physical and/or verbal fights
While these symptoms and signs may be overwhelming and intimidating, there are a variety of interventions and conversation starters you as a parent can use to help your child and/or teen!
Conversations Starters and Helpful Tips for Parents
It can be hard to know whether your child is being bullied, and it can feel overwhelming and even uncomfortable to have those conversations with your child. Feeling uncomfortable and overwhelmed is okay. Below are some helpful questions to ask your child to prompt some conversation about bullying:
- What did you do and who did you play with at play time today?
- Who do you like to play with? Who do you not like to play with?
- If you could change one thing about school or other kids at school, what would it be?
- Are you looking forward to going to school tomorrow?
- Is there anyone at school you don’t like or that you avoid? Why?
- Who do you find enjoyable to hang out with? Who do you find difficult to hang out with?
- What’s happening on social media? Does anyone or anything make you feel uncomfortable with their posts?
Conversations about bullying are difficult conversations to have, especially if it is between you and your child. If your child communicates to you that bullying is occuring, here are some helpful tips in navigating the conversation:
- Listen and stay calm. It can be difficult to stop yourself from jumping in right away with potential solutions or vocalizing frustration that someone is bullying your child. Initially, try to focus on providing praise, encouragement, and validating their feelings. For example, “I appreciate you telling me what happened today. You should be so proud of yourself for expressing your feelings. It’s okay to feel this way, and I want you to know your feelings matter and are important.” Letting your child know it is okay to feel the way they do (e.g., upset, frustrated, mad, sad) and that the situation is not their fault, can promote feeling supported, heard, and validated.
- Summarize the problem. Summarizing the problem at hand can not only help your child feel heard, but also help you in clarifying what the problem is. Summarizing the problem at hand may include: what happens, who is involved, where and when it takes place, and how your child feels. After summarizing the problem, you are able to reassure your child that you want to help. The type and want for help can look different depending on your child’s age. For example, a teenager may not want your immediate action with the school or the other children’s parents; they may just be looking for emotional support and validation at that time. Asking your teenager what they need can promote feelings of control and empowerment in these difficult situations. For example: “What can I do to best help and support you?” and “Do you need me to be a listener or a problem solver?”
Picture this: you’re sitting at work, doing your own thing, and then your phone lights up with a call from your child’s school. You internally groan, thinking, “What now?” You answer hesitantly, and the voice on the other end of the phone introduces themself as the principal at your child’s school. The principal says, “I am calling to let you know that your child has been involved in some bullying recently.”
Now stop. Take a moment to consider this: is your first instinct to assume that your child is being bullied, or is the one doing the bullying? Is there one situation that you found yourself hoping it was or was not?
Whether your child is being bullied or engaging in the bullying behavior, there are so many big emotions and questions around the situation:
What do I say to the school?
What do I say to my child?
What did I do wrong in my parenting that this is happening?
What should I do next?
As parents, it is sometimes hard to know what to say to our kids about bullying, especially in places we don’t always see, such as at school or online. When we have been told that our child is either displaying bullying behaviors or has been the target or another person’s bullying behaviors, here are some steps we can take to support our kids.
If your child is being bullied:
- Stop. Breathe. Be assertive and polite with the school staff (or whoever reported the bullying to you). Tell yourself that having a big emotional reaction will not help to solve anything. Emphasize that you want to work with the school to make sure your child is safe and that there is a solution to the bullying behavior toward your child.
- Talk to your child. Be as clear as possible that it is not their fault that someone chose to bully them. Remain calm and help your child see that you are a safe person for them to talk to about whatever is happening in their life. Help them identify additional safe people to talk to if the bullying continues; this could be a teacher, the counselor, the principal, the custodian, a neighbor, or family member. Anyone who you know will take your child’s report seriously and make sure that they get help.
- Ask about and/or help identify any feelings your child may be having about being bullied. Normalize any of those feelings with your child: they might be sad, mad, scared, insecure, or a mix of many emotions. Give your child support to feel their feelings, and also to start feeling happier, safer, and more comfortable.
- Identify any feelings you are having about the situation. Normalize these feelings for yourself as well. Reach out to your own support system to share your feelings and needs. Remind yourself that the situation is not your fault, and remind yourself that you can take the steps above to help empower yourself and your child in responding to it.
- Seek out help from a licensed counselor if you are concerned about the effects the bullying is having on your child.
If your child is doing the bullying:
- Stop. Breathe. Be assertive and polite with the school staff (or whoever reported the bullying to you). Tell yourself that having a big emotional reaction will not help to solve anything. Thank the school for telling you and for handling the situation. Emphasize that you want to work with the school to make sure everyone is safe and that there is a solution.
- Talk to your child. Hear the story from their point of view. Approach the conversation from a calm, non-judgmental place. Be firm in communicating that, whatever the situation was, bullying is never okay. Be clear that although you don’t approve of their actions, you love them and you want to help them to change their behavior.
- Ask about and/or help identify any feelings your child might be having that contributed to the decision to bully someone. Normalize any of those feelings with your child: they can be sad, mad, scared, insecure, or any mix of feelings. Give your child support to feel their feelings, and also to start feeling happier, safer, and more comfortable. Brainstorm constructive ways for your child to express feelings and get their message across that does not hurt themself or others.
- Identify any feelings you are having about the situation. Normalize those feelings for yourself as well. Reach out to your own support system to share your feelings and needs. Remind yourself that the situation is not your fault, and remind yourself that you can take the steps above to help empower yourself and your child in changing the behavior and resolving the situation.
- Consider implementing a consequence. This helps your child see that you do not support their behaviors. It can be especially effective to have the consequence be related to the bullying incident. For example, if your child was bullying another child through SnapChat, you might take away their phone or their social media privileges for a predetermined amount of time. Or you could help your child identify ways they can directly rectify any damage their bullying behavior may have caused.
- Seek out help from a licensed counselor if you are concerned about your child’s behavior.
Here’s the bottom line: bullying is never okay. Whichever side of the situation your child is on, it is important to respond calmly, assertively, and empathetically. It is important to take action, to follow through, and to follow-up. Acknowledge that all behavior is a form of communication and work to understand what your child is communicating to you through their actions. Seek help for your child, if it feels appropriate, and seek support for yourself as well.