Here’s the thing about directing our attention so fully and passionately toward bullying: The people most affected by it are sick of talking about it.
“Kids are at the eye-rolling stage with bullying,” says Cynthia Lowen, producer and writer of the acclaimed documentary Bully. “They’re so inundated with messages from the media and school and this huge explosion of awareness over the last few years that it’s like, ‘Ugh, bullying.’ ”
But the numbers indicate the problem continues to plague kids. Thirteen million children are bullied each year in the United States, and 3 million stay home from school because they feel unsafe, the U.S. Department of Education reports. Kids ages 10 to 17 are more than twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts if they’ve been bullied in the past year, says a recent study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
The increasing prevalence of social media and technology in teens’ lives means that schoolmates’ taunts and threats no longer end when a child enters the confines of home. Twenty-four percent of adolescents ages 10 to 18 have experienced a form of cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.
The solution, of course, is not to stop the conversations. But it may be time to change them.
Experts in the fields of education, psychology and parenting offer five ways to adjust our approach to bullying.
Stop calling it “bullying.” “If you go to a school and ask, ‘How many of you have been bullied?’ nobody will raise their hand,” Lowen says. “When you start breaking it down by behaviors: Raise your hand if someone has spread rumors about you. Raise your hand if you’ve watched someone being ostracized in the last week. Raise your hand if someone has called you a [derogatory name] this week. Many hands will shoot up.”
Don’t assume they’ll tell you they’re being bullied. “If you ask your teenager if things are going OK at school, there’s a good chance he or she will tell you things are fine,” says Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear (HarperOne). “It’s easy to miss things until they blow up in your face.”
“For most older kids it’s very humiliating to tell their parents,” says clinical psychologist Peter Sheras. Many will choose to live alone with the pain or try to alleviate it in harmful ways, such as drug or alcohol use.
If they do tell you, give it the weight it deserves. “A terrible response is, ‘Oh, he was just kidding,’ or ‘Oh, kids are kids,’ ” says Goldman. “When your kid comes to you with concerns, don’t dismiss them. It’s only teaching them to be dismissive of other people’s feelings.”
Overreacting can be equally harmful. “Another reason kids are nervous to tell their parents is they’re afraid their parents will march into the principal’s office” or confront the bully’s parents.
Find a solution together. “Stop what you’re doing and say, ‘Wow, that’s really hard. I’m really sorry that happened to you,’” says parenting educator Rosalind Wiseman. “ ‘Thank you so much for telling me and let’s sit down and think about what we can do about it.’”
Remember that you make a difference. Parents often feel like their teens reject their advice out of hand. But experts say parental perspective goes a long way toward alleviating the pain of bullying.
“They haven’t lived through a zillion relationships that break up and make up and grief and loss and job changes,” says Goldman. “They don’t know how resilient they can be. …
“Set a goal. ‘Let’s get through these next six months. Things will change.’ You have to let them know, even if it feels like the end of the world, you will feel other joys. You won’t always be in this seventh circle of hell.”
The other side
As hard as it is to learn that your child is being victimized, it can be even more traumatic to discover your child is the bully. But consider the news a blessing, says Lowen.
“It gives you an opportunity to take stock of how your child is using his or her social power. If they’re having anger management issues, if they’re going through trauma or something at home or school. …
“Use it as an opportunity to say, ‘Things have gotten totally off-track here. How do we get this back on track?’ If your child has a lot of social cachet. If they are someone other kids look up to. If they’re a big bruiser of a kid. How can these qualities be used to be a leader among their peers, rather than someone who’s hurting their peers?”
And remember that it doesn’t define your child.
“In another situation,” Lowen says, “he or she might be on the receiving end of bullying. It’s a very complicated problem. Kids don’t fit neatly compartmentalized into ‘bullies’ or ‘victims.’ ”