It’s back to school time. While for some students it can be an exciting time of reuniting with their friends, for others it can produce a great deal of anxiety. The reason? They have been victims of bullying in the past and returning to that environment can be scary and intimidating.
For many in the older generation, we equate bullying with the mean kid on the playground who pushes others around. But for the younger generation, bullying takes on a whole new form. Social media provides an entirely new platform for people to say negative, mean things about one another. And not having to say those things face to face provides even more anonymity for the aggressor.
In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education have taken a hard look at bullying. It has defined the elements to include unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived power imbalance, and repetition of behaviors or a high likelihood of repetition.
Bullying can include either direct or indirect contact with the targeted victim. Direct would be something done in the presence of the victim, and indirect contact would be along the lines of the spreading of rumors.
The unwanted aggressive behavior can take on many forms including physical, verbal, relational and damage to property. Not only that, it can be done in a variety of ways including cyberbullying. And although we think of bullying as something that is done among the youth, the effects on the victim can carry well into adulthood and can even be a contributing factor in suicide.
According to counselor Barb Perusse, LPC who in her practice works closely with children, the biggest form of bullying she sees is through social media. “It is also common for kids to say mean things to others in the hallways at school or they go out of their way to exclude others,” she said.
She cites one example of a child who was told that she was ugly and should die. “When things like this are said, I try to encourage those that I counsel to look at the words being directed at them from a different perspective. I ask them, ‘Is this OK? Would you ever think this is OK to say to another person?’ By taking themselves out of it, it helps increase their self-esteem and helps them to not see it as a personal attack.”
Perusse said she sees the non-stop social media as nothing short of dangerous. “We see people living what we perceive as a perfect life, and that simply is not true. We cannot and should not compare ourselves to others,” she said.
According to the national organization Stop Bullying, research shows that persistent bullying can lead to feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion or despair. And while the bullying can definitely be a risk factor of suicide, most people who take their own lives have multiple risk factors. According to the Centers for Disease Control, any involvement with bullying behavior is one stressor that can significantly contribute to feelings of hopelessness, which in turn can raise the risk of suicide.
The fact that people are now talking about this subject has helped to raise awareness about the harm that bullying does to all youth who are involved in bullying in any manner. It has also opened up a dialogue among schools, parents and community members to discuss the topic.
So, what can we, as educators and parents, do to help reduce, and hopefully eliminate all together, this horrific practice?
Erin Roos is a teacher at Sandpoint High School in North Idaho. She teaches a class called Real Life which instructs students on skills to manage time, stress, conflict, creating positive communication and more. She also teaches a mentorship class that is designed for upperclassmen who wish to be positive role models for the student body. Each mentor leads a multi-grade level group of students on topics pertinent to the social/emotional and academic/career planning needs of teens on a monthly basis. And while all this has done a great deal to help the students, the reality is that the problem remains.
“Schools are teaching respect, acceptance and inclusion, but unfortunately bullying still exists,” said Roos.
Each year, Roos shows a video to her students on how to stop bullying dead in its tracks. The video is presented by Brooks Gibbs, an award-winning social skills educator who teaches students, parents and educators how to build emotional resilience and live by the Golden Rule.
Gibbs explains that sociologists have studied bullying for decades. However, instead of referring to the act as bullying, they refer to it as dominance behavior. “When a bully picks on someone, they are trying to demonstrate their power over that person,” said Gibbs. And when the victim of bullying responds in anger, the aggressor thrives on that behavior.
Instead, said Gibbs, if the victim is resilient, emotionally strong and mentally tough, then no matter what the aggressor says, it will show them that they are not successful in their taunting. Gibbs explains that while some may believe it requires high self-esteem and self-confidence on the part of the victim to respond in such a way as “I don’t care what you say to me,” it is really more a game of winning and losing.
“The way that they [victims] win is by not getting upset, and the bully will lose. And when people lose, they don’t like playing the game, so they just leave you alone,” explains Gibbs. “Don’t get upset no matter what the bully says. I’m not saying it’s easy, but in logic it’s very simple.”
He says the act of bullying is when people hurt one’s feelings. “Many people think of bullying as more complex than that. Some people think of bullying as an act of violence,” said Gibbs. But an act of violence, such as punching someone, is a crime, and by all means a person’s response to violence would naturally be to respond in anger, and they should report the crime. He warns that it is important to differentiate between the act of bullying and a crime of battery or assault.
When addressing how we, as a society, can help children who are victims of bullying, he encourages people to empower our youth. By empowering kids to solve their own social problems, Gibbs said three things occur: They grow in self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth.
“All these words have one thing in common—the word ‘self.’ You cannot do it for the child; he or she has to do it for him or herself,” said Gibbs.
By solving problems by themselves, children will grow in all these areas.
Roos said she echoes Gibbs’ lessons in her class by discussing with her students the benefits of responding calmly, with humor or not responding at all.
“The bully is usually seeking a strong reaction or emotional response to feel powerful,” said Roos. “We also investigate assertive responses as opposed to aggressive or passive responses to bullying. This can include assertive body language, eye contact, tone of voice, setting boundaries with people and having a prepared and practiced response. Even surprising the bully by being friendly and making efforts to get to know them better works. We know that people tend to treat each other better when they know more about each other and recognize they are more similar than different.”
She advises that if the bullying behavior increases in frequency and intensity, she and other staff encourage students to tell someone. “Preferably, tell a trusted adult or someone with authority. Keeping documentation of the bullying and having witnesses is helpful. This includes text messages, screen shots and video,” she said.
Roos emphasizes that it is important that students know not to retaliate if being bullied online.
“Those who have authority at school cannot help you if you are bullying back. Again, keep evidence of the bullying and do not respond online other than assertively saying the comments are not appreciated. Students have the power to control their social media privacy settings. They may block anyone with whom they do not wish to communicate, and they can report any bullying to the social media website. They can also take a break from social media and stop using it for several weeks or months. Many students are pleasantly surprised at the relief they feel from not worrying about the possibility of reading posts, tweets or snaps that might upset them,” she said.
Last year in the connections class, Roos and the mentors discussed with the students what it means to be an upstander, as opposed to a bystander.
“On social media, this may look like posting a positive comment about someone after a bully has posted something hurtful. Or it could include telling the victim something you appreciate about them or what they do really well,” explained Roos. “This seems to be effective in shutting down the bully without causing more confrontation, as well as building up the bullied person.”
Parents should be aware of their child and his or her behaviors. Warning signs that your child is being bullied can be many, including: unexplained injuries, lost or destroyed personal property, frequent headaches or stomach aches, change in eating habits, difficulty sleeping, not wanting to go to school, a sudden loss of friends, decreased self-esteem and destructive behaviors including harming oneself.
“Social media is the new great frontier for bullying because it is so easy to hide behind a screen and say mean things,” said Roos. “Students are also unlikely to tell their parents or an adult if this is happening. I strongly encourage parents to notice their child’s mood before and after they are checking their social media and to talk to them about it. Parents should also be checking their child’s social media accounts regularly to see if any bullying is occurring.”
It is a complex and highly technological world in which children have to navigate these days. And while there is no easy answer to how we can put an end to bullying, Roos said it all boils down to this: “I believe the most valuable tools we can supply our kids with are self-confidence, self-love and assertiveness training,” she said.
If you are interested in learning more about Brooks Gibbs’ program on raising an emotionally strong child, visit his website at BrooksGibbs.com. He has an online training program called Raise Them Strong that empowers students to make friends and manage emotions. For other valuable tools, log onto Kidscape.org.uk/advice/advice-for-young-people/dealing-with-bullying/how-to-respond-to-bullies.