Being proactive in the new age of bullying
BY LAUREN MCALILEY, MSN, CNP
*First published in Fall 2011/Winter 2012
You hear the word bully and immediately picture a schoolyard tough-guy and his groupies shaking down a more vulnerable child for lunch money. In this day and age, the reality is much more complicated and often more subtle. Responding to bullying presents great challenges for parents, school systems and communities.
Most bullying behavior is intentionally harmful, repetitive and reflects an actual or perceived power inequity between bully and victim. It can involve physical, verbal or social abuse — name-calling, spreading rumors, excluding the victim from groups/ activities, even physical attacks. It occurs mostly in the school setting or traveling to and from school. The use of blogs, e-mail, instant messaging and other social media to harass, embarrass or intimidate victims (cyberbullying) takes bullying to a new level. Bullying is so pervasive and its consequences so damaging that we must not dismiss it as “kids just being kids,” or take the view that victims need to “toughen up.”
Yes, It’s That Bad
A recent study showed one out of five U.S. adolescents in school had been physically bullied at least once within the two months preceding the survey. About half reported verbal bullying, half reported social bullying and 13.6 percent reported cyberbullying. According to the National Education Association (NEA), about 160,000 students miss school each day due to bullying.
What an Impact!
Victims of bullying may experience poor self-esteem, depression, post-traumatic shock disorder, anger, anxiety, frequent headaches or abdominal pain. School performance may suffer and students may drop out. There is an increased risk of substance use, cutting and eating disorders. Risky sex, gang membership and runaway behaviors are prevalent. Sadly, we have become familiar with stories of suicides and school shootings linked to bullying.
Many victims become bullies. Bullies and victims are more likely to be convicted of crimes. As adults, they may bully at work or engage in domestic violence.
Acts of bullying can result in legal prosecution for hate crimes, invasion of privacy, stalking and civil rights violations. Some states hold parents legally responsible for their kids’ bullying acts. Schools that fail to intervene may also suffer legal scrutiny and consequences.
Both boys and girls bully, with the incidence of female bullying on the rise. Boys are more likely to bully both sexes physically, while girls bully primarily other girls socially and verbally. Girls frequently bully in cliques. It is no longer thought that bullies have low self-esteem or tend to be outcasts. They are often among the more popular students with average or better grades. They like to be in control and may feel entitled. Bullies are good at putting on a deceptively good face in front of adults. Parents of bullies often respond with surprise, disbelief and defense of their kids. Bullies may or may not come from hostile home environments, have uninvolved parents or lack set behavioral guidelines.
Who Gets Bullied?
Victims may be smaller, weaker, passive or shy. They may be hyperactive, clumsy or impulsive. Kids with learning disabilities or physical or medical disabilities make easy targets. Victims may be picked on because of race, religion, ethnic background or sexual preference. They may also be among the prettiest, most popular or most athletic and seen as obstacles to other “wannabes.”
Signs & Symptoms
A child who is a victim of bullying may show general signs of stress such as: changes in eating habits, sleep disturbances, peer group changes, a drop in school attendance or performance, loss of interest in activities, mood swings, complaints of headaches or stomachaches. More specific symptoms or behaviors include: destroyed or lost belongings, more requests for money, unexplained injuries, a sudden interest in home security, carrying a weapon, self-harming, a preference for being around adults, acting angry or upset after computer use, reports of being teased, ostracized, picked on or gossiped about.
The bully may be a smart-aleck around adults who enjoys testing limits, is skilled at manipulating his way out of trouble and is pre-occupied with fighting. He may brag about how much stronger/faster/smarter he is than others. He may be impulsive, quick to anger and eager to blame others for his wrongdoing. Bullies may control their siblings. They may try to seem like winners by putting down or gossiping about others.
What’s a Parent to Do?
❉ Talk with your kids about their day. Know their friends and interests.
❉ Discuss bullying and how to get help if they witness it. Set clear behavioral expectations and consequences for violations.
❉ Explore resources with your kids.
❉ Engage your children in activities suited to their interests and abilities.
❉ Keep your computer in plain sight. Set cell phone controls and monitor use.
❉ Know the school’s policy toward bullying, and advocate for education about it. Insist on adequate supervision in the hallways, cafeteria and schoolyard, and on feedback regarding bullying incidents.
❉ Take signs or reports of bullying seriously, and take action.
❉ Refrain from displaying bullying behavior, particularly in divorce situations and neighbor disputes.
❉ Document ongoing acts of bullying: Save e-mails and phone messages, noting dates, times and witnesses.
Address bullying by being proactive. Be alert to the nature, extent and consequences of bullying; learn risk factors and signs; be aware of resources; stay involved in your kids’ lives; teach values and set clear behavioral expectations; and partner with your schools and community.
Lauren McAliley, MSN, CNP, is a PNP with the department of Child Advocacy and Protection at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, where she is also associate director of the Rainbow Center for Pediatric Ethics.