When The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment held a conference in South Florida in 1999, one school administrator stood up after a presentation on bullying and complained, "You have just wasted our time. We have real problems in schools."
With the documentary Bully having garnered attention nationwide and celebrities including Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato taking up the anti-bullying cause, it’s hard to imagine this scene taking place today. But, says Trish Ramsay, education director at The Melissa Institute who recalled the incident from the 1999 conference, it’s easier to acknowledge bullying than to stop it.
IF YOUR CHILD IS BULLIED ...• Don’t expect them to take care of the situation on their own, or to just ignore the bullying and it will stop. "By the time a child tells a parent, the child has done everything they can do to stop it or ignore it," says Trish Ramsay of the Melissa Institute.
"Kids are very good at hiding bullying," Ramsay said. "And much of it is verbal and takes place in a few seconds."
Official definitions of bullying all involve three components: The behavior is abusive, is repeated and involves an "imbalance of power" between the child who bullies and the victim.
Examples of power imbalance include advantages in size or age, social status or knowledge of another’s vulnerability (such as obesity or a learning disability).
Experts agree that prevention starts in early childhood.
"Empathy can be taught," says Judith Bachay, program director of graduate counseling programs at St. Thomas University in Miami. "One of the most powerful rules for preschoolers is, 'Hands are for helping, not for hurting.' Something as simple as teaching a child to say 'please' and 'thank you' teaches children that we care about other people’s feelings."
By the time students reach middle school, a computer keyboard or cellphone touchpad can become a powerful weapon in the bullying wars. A Canadian teacher is credited with coining the term "cyberbullying" in 2001. Since then, many of the high-profile cases of social aggression have involved texting, Twitter and Facebook, including the case of a Rutgers University student convicted in March of using a webcam to view his roommate kissing another man and then telling others about it via text, instant message and Twitter.
"What makes cyberbullying so dangerous is that it can be done anonymously, 24/7," says Julie Astuto, a counselor at Palmetto Elementary School in Pinecrest. "Parents need to step back when their kids get to middle school, and some of that is appropriate, but they should not allow their kids to go into their rooms and shut the doors for hours on end.
"I see second- and third-graders with Facebook accounts and am floored by that because they don’t have the maturity to handle it," Astuto says.
When addressing the problem, however, adults need to be careful not to "bully the bully," says The Melissa Institute’s Ramsay. "Discipline is not the same as punishing."
Debra Pepler, a researcher at York University in Canada, agrees.
"There is no question that bullying is wrong, but the problem is that responding to bullying with the punishment associated with the criminal system does not generally provide the social and relationship learning opportunities that these youth have missed out on," says Pepler, who studies aggressive behavior in children and serves on the scientific board of The Melissa Institute.
"This is a societal problem that takes place whenever children gather," she said. Adults everywhere – not just in schools – "need to be aware of group dynamics involving children" and create an environment where vulnerable youngsters feel neither excluded nor bullied.
Since bullying can’t always be prevented, however, children should be taught how to deal with bullies and get help when needed. Parents can tell children that "using humor, being assertive, staying calm and staying close to students who will stick up for you are all ways to deal with bullying," Astuto says.
"However, if it is hard for your child to stand up for himself or herself and the bullying behavior continues, they need to report it to a trusted adult who can help, such as a parent, teacher, counselor or coach."
New research suggests that failing to protect children from bullying and similar trauma like exposure to domestic violence can affect not only their emotional health but their very DNA.
"There is research emerging that the healthy development of children and youth depends on healthy relationships," Pepler says.
A British study that measured children’s DNA at age 5 and again at 10 showed that children who had experienced two of three types of trauma – child abuse, bullying or exposure to domestic violence – showed changes in their genetic makeup that could lead to health problems later.
"We’re learning so much about what goes on under the skin and how the brain develops that emphasizes how important it is" that we have healthy relationships, Pepler said.
It’s this fourth R – relationships – that St. Thomas’ Bachay believes should join the traditional three Rs as an emphasis in schools.
"What good is academic learning if children cannot be contributing members of society?" Bachay asked. "Students need to be able to produce solutions to conflict, and these skills aren’t measured with a No. 2 pencil. Kids who have the skills of getting along with others, asserting themselves appropriately, solving conflict peacefully — these are the kids who succeed in the world, who can hold a job, who sustain relationships."