Bullies Among Us

November 30, 2018

It isn’t just schoolyard thugs threatening our kids’ self-esteem and safety. Learning to recognize triggers that create bullies and their targets can help parents manage both.

While there are days we’re tempted to enlist bodyguards to protect our children from the mean kid at school, we can actually do more for our sons and daughters by helping them build up authentic confidence—the kind that keeps them from being targeted by bullies—and, even more importantly, keeps them from becoming bullies themselves.

Few of us, or our kids, manage to get through school without some exposure to bullying: as a victim, bully, bystander or some toxic combination of all three. Some 30% of kids age 12-18 admit to having bullied others, while some studies claim even higher numbers. So in addition to vexing over the chance our kid is getting a wedgie between classes, we have an uncomfortably high chance of actually housing a bully under our own roof.

Those sobering numbers are reminders that bullies aren’t some kind of rogue offspring—sociopaths raised by negligent parents. Kids who bully and kids who are bullied have more in common than we might think.

Rites of passage

We’re good parents, and we do our best to raise good children, and yet something happens to almost all kids in the transition years between mid-elementary and high school, something that changes the way they see themselves and the way they treat each other. While their action might imply otherwise, bullies are rarely monsters. The better we, and our kids, understand what bullies actually are, the better we can defuse situations, sometimes before they even occur. The best way to defeat bullies is to better understand them.

What does bullying look like? 

Forms of bullying range almost as widely as our kids themselves: 44% comes in the form of teasing; 36% looks more like spreading rumors; 32% involves pushing or shoving; 29% is hitting or kicking; sexual comments or gestures account for 24%, and 27% is in the form of active exclusion, threatening or stealing.

These aren’t our kids, right? Except, unfortunately, up to a third of them actually are. So let’s take a minute to look more closely at this broad list of offenses and see what they all have in common: a decided lack of authentic confidence.

In addition to vexing over the chance our kid is getting a wedgie between classes, we have an uncomfortably high chance of actually housing a bully under our own roof.

The confidence deficit

Turns out that self-esteem is in seriously short supply among students age 8 to 18. Kids’ identities are shifting at a breakneck pace from elementary to high school as they morph from one version of themselves to the next.

The insecurity that accompanies these shifts is often masked with the kind of fake confidence so common in archetypal bullies, or else evidenced as a total lack of confidence that can turn kids into easy targets. Helping our kids decode the motivations of a bully gives our kids powerful tools for defusing situations with words instead of physical rebuffs.

As parents, it seems important to recognize the commons threads tethering the kids on both ends of the bullying spectrum. It helps us, and our children, to unravel at least some of those threads, even as we also share practical advice on how to avoid and respond to bullies.

A good starting place is to model for our kids what real self-esteem looks like by making sure that we, ourselves, have this attribute in check. Easier said than done? There are good resources available to us.

Drama vs Bullying

Also important seems to be helping our kids understand what bullying is, and what it isn’t. Verbal conflict and physical skirmishes are common among school-age children, but bullying is different because, by definition, it isn’t a fair fight. Dominance of one kind or another is baked into the mix.

Confrontation between kids on equal footing is frequently referred to as “drama” in school settings. It’s not a social encounter that any of us wish on our kids, but it’s often part of the emotional journey they take on their way to figuring out group dynamics and where they fit into them. It’s a more garden-variety one-on-one altercation, and it’s pretty much everywhere. This is not bullying, and to label it as such makes the prospect of stemming actual bullying seem impossible.

Adult support can be helpful in some cases of drama, but not when it undermines our kids’ opportunities for self-mastery and learning to problem-solve and negotiate. Parsing through what we hear and trying to avoid mislabeling or escalation is something every family  has to figure out for themselves, and while it’s not fun to tell a child we think they might be crying wolf, neither is it healthy for kids to unnecessarily hold on to the label of ‘victim’ or ‘bully.’ So we try to use those labels sparingly and take the time to talk with our kids about our own experiences with bullying.SI

Signs of bullying

It’s not hard to remember bullies from our own school days: trash-talking cowards with something to prove (or compensate for) and always picking on easy marks: those vulnerable students whose looks, beliefs, aptitudes or disabilities separate them from the “pack,” kids considered somehow less popular or powerful.

Real bullying is outlier behavior, not just a misunderstanding or two kids having a bad day, and real bullying requires intervention.

Drama is not bullying, and to label it as such makes the prospect of stemming actual bullying seem impossible.

Warning signs our kids are being bullied

If we’ve invested time building up good communication channels with our kids, there’s a chance they might tell us about bullying directly. But more often than not, kids actually don’t tell their parents: only 25% according to the National Institute of Health and the CDC. If we suspect our son or daughter is being bullied we look for warning signs: aversion to school, self-harm or other depressive behavior, unexplained injuries, declining grades or appetite, difficulty sleeping, lost or damaged possessions, frequent headaches and stomachaches and loss of friends. These are not the symptoms of casual altercations or drama, and these symptoms carry long-term consequences. While almost anyone can end up in a bully’s cross-hairs, groups of kids particularly at risk of being bullied include those coming across as vulnerable or separated from the herd. Often it’s because their appearance isn’t mainstream, kids with special needs, eating disorders, those who identify as LGBTQ, and kids with difficulty reading social cues such as those with Asperger’s.

Warning signs our kids are, themselves, bullies

We love our kids, but even so, we recognize that they’re not perfect, and recognize our responsibility if their actions begin impacting other kids. There are warning signs to look for, and we owe it to our kids, and others, to be clear-eyed about them.

Bullies are impulsive, rarely accept responsibility for their actions and tend to blame others for their own problems. Over time they become increasingly aggressive with siblings and friends, including verbal or physical fights. They often try to project, but don’t necessarily havephysical and/or intellectual strength, or some other form of dominance over others.

They are typically overly-concerned with popularity, easily frustrated, pessimistic, and (of course) compensating for shame or deep insecurity. Bullies tend to ignore rules, have been exposed to aggressive behavior in media or in the home and they consider violence and intimidation as available tools. They become increasingly less involved with school, and may also be depressed or anxious, easily pressured by peers, or have difficulty identifying with the emotions of others.

While any one of these attributes doesn’t necessarily condemn someone to being a bully, large numbers of these markers add up to the bullying profile. What we choose to do about it as parents has lasting consequences. Many of these symptoms can come from kids being bullied themselves, and–brace yourself–this often starts in the home. That’s not easy to read, or to write. It’s even less easy to live with if we know there is something we can do about it and we’re not doing it.

Turning bystanders into “upstanders”

Bullying rarely occurs one-on-one in dark corners; more often than not it’s a function of group dynamics where approval by the crowd sometimes even encourages the activity. But these onlookers have just as much power to stop it.

The kids witnessing bullying are considered bystanders and we can think of them in three categories: 1) kids who defend the victim; 2) those who passively witness it; and 3) those who laugh or otherwise support the action.

Their choices in the role of witness make a big difference to bullying outcomes. According to a study in England at York University and Queen’s University, 57% of bullying stops within less than a minute when witnesses intervene. That’s a big difference, and any one of our kids can be the hero who steps in. We can encourage our kids to reflect on past experiences when they’ve been on the scene and witnessed bullying. Which of the three category roles did they play? How could they be a better friend next time? What are some “upstander” phrases they could set to memory so they’re ready next time?

57% of bullying stops within less than a minute when witnesses intervene.

The role of identity in bullying

Forging identity is tough work for any kid, and even more so for those who identify as LGBT. Their identity work is complex and often accompanied by rejection at home or among their childhood friends. In their growing isolation, these kids become easy pickins’ for bullies. Our children don’t need to identify as LGBT themselves, or even fully understand it, to be an ally for kids who do. Empathy is an important muscle to develop early in life and this is a perfect opportunity. There is strength in numbers.

Action plans to prevent and respond to bullies

Every situation involving bullying is going to be different and requires different solutions, but as a primer, consider a conversation with your kids that includes these:

1) Identifying locations where bullying most frequently occurs helps us to create strategies to address these specifics. According to the federal government website, stopbullying.gov, 29% occurs in the classroom with an equal percentage occurring in the hallway and at their lockers. The cafeteria and gym are the location 23% of the time, 20% occurs in bathrooms and 12% takes place at recess or on playgrounds. Come up with concrete plans for your kids in these settings given what you know of their personality, friends and the school itself.

2) Have our kids describe or write down in detail a situation when they were bullied or witnessed bullying; sometimes it helps to make a drawing if words aren’t fast coming.

The same exercise applies if our kids are actually the ones doing the bullying, but understand that it will be harder for them to be reliable narrators because of the associated guilt and shame. So we support them in this process in any way we can, including compassion, patience and support narratives from witnesses to help our kids face this uncomfortable process.

3) Have them now re-imagine that same situation, but give it a better outcome: ways in which it could have been prevented or handled better. Strategize about how that new outcome is achieved with specific details: does it involve other people? What are they doing? What are our kids doing differently? Role-play is useful here so they can internalize these new self-directed strategies, making them easier to replicate when it’s required of them in stressful settings.

4) We can model ways our kids can become more assertive and speak up, for themselves and for others. They can proactively enlist peer allies, and we can enlist those peers’ parents. We can prep our kids with a few scripted quips to help turn bystanders into upstanders—in person and online: “I see what you’re doing,” “Let’s not go there,” “Not cool, dude,” “You’re better than this.”

More than anything, we can help protect our kids from being bullied, or becoming bullies, by encouraging candid conversations with us in the home. Building their self-esteem and their emotional intelligence gives our sons and daughters tools they can put to use on the schoolyard battlefield when we’re not around to (literally) fight their battles for them. Allowing them to do so themselves brings with it long-term rewards that pay off long after they’ve graduated (and likely become their bully’s boss).

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