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Release Date: 8/6/2012

Back to school - back to bullying?

Lori Tagger, Ph.D.

Lori Tagger, Ph.D.

For most kids, “back to school” means new beginnings – new classrooms, new studies, new teachers. For too many kids, it means more of the same dread, fear and shame – bullying.

Approximately 30% of youth in the U.S. are estimated to be involved in bullying either as a target, a bully, or both. More than 88% of junior high and high school students say they have witnessed bullying in their schools.

Why is bullying so prevalent and widespread in today’s society?

“Part of it is our culture,” said Lori Tagger, Ph.D., licensed psychologist with St. Anthony’s Psychological Services. “As a nation, we have become coarser; as a society, we have become desensitized. Kids grow up seeing characters talk back and berate someone on TV, and it’s funny. They play video games where people are beaten, raped and murdered and it’s no longer shocking – disrespectfulness and violence seem normal. Additionally, we don’t hold people responsible for their bad behaviors; there are no consequences.”

Tagger divides bullying into three types:

  • Direct – pushing, shoving, controlling (taking money, belongings, etc.).
  • Cyberbullying – being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social aggression, using the Internet or other digital technologies.
  • Indirect – leaving someone out, telling others not to be their friends, talking about them, spreading rumors, sharing personal information, embarrassing them. 

Direct bullying occurs more frequently with boys. Physical bullies often view violence in a positive way, often modeling what they’ve seen at home. They may lack respect and empathy for others, and bullying gives them a sense of power. “We encourage victims of physical bullying to not fight back, just walk away,” Tagger said. “But for many adolescents, that is difficult to do; they’re more afraid of being taunted than of being beaten up.”

In the case of cyber-bullying, one third of teens using the Internet have been bullied and 75 percent have visited a site bashing another student. “Girls are twice as likely to be both victims and perpetrators,” Tagger said. “Being ignored and disrespected are the most common forms of cyber-bullying. Ninety percent of middle school students have had their feelings hurt online, and 60 percent never told their parents about the incident.”

Indirect bullying most often occurs with girls, Tagger said. “Relationships are more important to girls, so status is very important to them,” she said. “Having a lot of friends or a boyfriend gives status to a girl. Belonging is HUGE in adolescence. Being left out is the worst thing they can imagine.”

What makes a victim a victim – the kid who gets picked on? “He/she is perceived to be weak or different in some way and may appear to be depressed, anxious and lacking self esteem,” Tagger said. “A victim of bullying generally is less popular, has few friends and may not get along with others. He/she may have ADHD and exhibit impulsive behavior.”

Most kids don’t tell their parents they’re being bullied, Tagger said, so parents need to be aware of the warning signs, which might include:

  • change in behavior;
  • physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach pains;
  • losing things, avoiding events, trying to be early or late to school or home;
  • nervous about certain things;
  • withdrawing from family, usual things.

“Bullying is not some harmless phase of childhood; it can do a lot of damage to the victim and have lifelong consequences,” Tagger said. “A victim of bullying feels a sense of powerlessness and a lack of self-worth. Victims learn the world is not a safe place, they are not worth anything and deserve to be treated poorly. If no one intervenes, the victim feels alone, abandoned, different – “There’s something wrong with me.” He/she may bully someone else to keep from feeling powerless, or he may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the anxiety, depression and pain. A victim of bullying is at risk for ongoing mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which occurs when bad things happen and there is no healing.”

If you suspect your child may be a victim of bullying, ask him/her to share what’s happening to them, Tagger said. “Listen, take it seriously and assure the child IT IS NOT HIS/HER FAULT. Do not tell children to simply ignore bullying; but encourage them to walk away from bullies, rather than fight. Ask what they need in order to feel safe, and practice what to say and how to be assertive. Instruct them to say STOP – most bullies stop within 10 seconds when someone says stop in a strong voice, whether it’s the victim or a bystander. Also, consider the history of this relationship – Is there a power imbalance? Has this been a recurring thing?

“Help your child change routines so he/she won’t be alone and insure that more adults are around – 67 percent of bullying happens when adults aren’t around. Spend more time at school and get school officials involved. Don’t contact the other parent and don’t talk to the bully and the victim together or in front of others; use the school as a mediator. Talk to your child’s teachers, counselors, the principal. Read books, go on the Internet, talk to professionals. Your child needs help and this is serious business – educate yourself.”

But what if your child is the one doing the bullying? “If the parents themselves are bullies or condone violence as a solution, they may not notice it (in the child or in themselves) or think it’s wrong,” Tagger said. “Some may miss it because they don’t want to believe their child could do this or they just haven’t been paying attention. It depends a lot on the parents’ involvement in the child’s life.”

Bullies model violence and/or view it in a positive way, Tagger said. “They have perceived social power and are dominant (popular), or they may desire power that they do not have in other areas of their lives,” she said. “They may have low self-esteem, be depressed and isolated from others. Often bullies are easily frustrated and angered and have problems following the rules. They don’t think of others’ feelings and they have less parental involvement in their lives. Their friends may bully others or have been bullied themselves. Some kids are conflicted about their bullying, because it hurts someone; but it also gives them something – power.”

Parents of bullies can help by modeling appropriate behavior and teaching healthy ways to manage conflict and to express emotions, Tagger said. “Have healthy family rules, monitor your child’s behavior closely and teach that it’s not OK to tease or show disrespect for others, under any circumstances,” she said. “Teach empathy. If necessary, ask for help. If children who are bullies are not taught about empathy and given problem-solving strategies and ways to manage their emotions/anger, they may continue to bully. Thirty-five to 40 percent of former bullies have three or more criminal convictions by age 24.”

What about the bystander – the kids who watch, but don’t try to stop the bullying? “Up to 85 percent of bullying takes place before peers, but only a handful of kids intervene to stop it,” Tagger said. “Some may believe it’s not their business or that the victim deserves it. Some feel helpless to stop it. But the huge majority doesn’t want to be the target. They know it’s wrong, but ‘not belonging’ is the thing they fear most. Then there’s ‘bystander effect’ – where there are others around, so they feel someone else will step in; but no one does.”

But sometimes they do step in – who are these kids? “Kids with more confidence who have been raised to have empathy for others and stand up for what’s right,” Tagger said. These kids have a good sense of right and wrong.”

How can I help insure my child won’t be the victim of a bully? “Teach your kids to be assertive and help them develop confidence and healthy ways to handle conflict,” Tagger said. “Ask questions about their day, and listen, listen, listen. If they grow up using those tools, it is unlikely they will be victims of bullying.”

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