Bullying is not as simple as you think
When I was growing up, bullying was face-to-face pushing and shoving, maybe some rumors, perhaps intimidating phone calls. Those were bad enough, but it was a little easier to take care of the situation. Now we have not only the physical and psychological bullying but now we have “cyber-bullying.”
I should mention that it is not just children and teenagers that get bullied; adults of all ages also experience intimidation and bullying both in their personal and professional lives. I address this towards the bottom of this post.
These days, with the advent of cell phones with cameras and instant access to the internet and social media, cyber-bullying has become rampant. This means that all of those cruel rumors, embarrassing pictures and notes, humiliating videos etc. can circulate the globe in mere seconds. And as we know, once it’s out there, it’s out there for good, even if you pay people to remove it, the traces can be found, and there is no guarantee that somebody that saved the images/videos won’t just post it again. This kind of dark hole can be overwhelming to the developing mind, it may feel like the situation will never stop. Sadly, there have been many documented suicides attributed to cyber-bullying.
It’s important to keep an eye on your kids’ accounts, the younger the kiddo, the more you need to check in on things. They may not like it, especially tweens and teens, but their safety is paramount. Ask to see their Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, etc. pages. Even having login information is not off limits here. Games like Mine Craft can be a breeding ground for cyber-bullying (and luring kids into abusive situations). Be vigilant, not paranoid. Be aware, not a snoop. Be a parent, not a bully.
PTS(d) and Bullying – it’s real
If your child comes home and seems increasingly traumatized, try to remember just how intense bullying can be these days. You need to take it seriously.
Kids that are being bullied are frequently hesitant to say anything as they already feel weak and may have been told that they will be hurt more if they tell an adult. Post-Traumatic Stress can result from bullying. Some things to look out for are:
- Unexplained injuries, or injuries that don’t match the explanation
- Lost money, books etc.
- Damaged property (books, clothing, etc.)
- You child coming home hungry because they didn’t eat lunch/snacks
- Frequent headaches and stomach aches, often resulting in a desire to miss school
- Unusual flinch reflex (ie you go to hug your child and they flinch)
- Insomnia, nightmares
- Social isolation. Avoidance of social interactions/gatherings
- Decreased self-esteem
- Thoughts of suicide
- Increased aggression at home. This includes towards pets
- Running away and self-harming behavior
Types of bullying
It is important to understand how helpless a child who is being bullied may feel. Many parents find it frustrating that schools tell kids that they cannot fight back or they risk being suspended for violence. This can add a layer of defenselessness to an already frightened child. It is up to each family to decide what kind of self-defense is acceptable if their child is attacked at school. It is important to understand that many school districts do not condone fighting back in any circumstance, and will implement punitive consequences for doing so. I have found that many parents have discussed with their kids that should they not start a fight, or antagonize a bully into fighting, that no punishment at home will be doled out . . . and that they (parents) will love and support their children for standing up for themselves or others that are being bullied. While I abhor violence, I subscribe to this method of allowing the school to do what they must, but where the family does not punish a child for doing what they must to protect themselves or somebody else, so long as they did not initiate the conflict in any way, shape or form.
Some parents tell their kids to try and get away from the bully and tell a teacher what is happening. This is good advice, but remember, your child may be targeted for more bullying off-campus for being a tattle-tale. It is important that your child knows how to defend themselves with confidence, de-escalation techniques, and as a last resort, physical self-defense. A high-quality martial arts program will teach all of these. In Central Texas, Life-Ki-Do is the absolute best program I have ever seen. Their concept of tackling self-bullying is revolutionary and extremely valuable. They work with parents to help empower their kids as well. Do not hesitate to get in touch with them.
The old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is wildly inaccurate, and a confusing message for children of any age to hear. We all know too well that a bruise heals rather quickly, but emotional scars take much, much longer to heal. Words DO hurt, and usually worse than sticks and stones.
Bullies always use words to break down their victims. They derive power from not just physical domination, but also from the psychological fear and submission of the child that they are bullying. As bullies are often frightened themselves, they may stick to verbal bullying to elicit a submissive humiliation response from other kids.
Do not underestimate the damage that a psychological bully can inflict on your children. Just because there is no fat lip or black eye does not mean that their pain is any less real.
Cyber-bullying IS emotional bullying doled out over the internet. But there is now an added layer of humiliation: the entire world is now an audience to the ridicule. Since kids social lives seem to revolve around their phones, computers, and tablets, it is an instantaneous distribution of pain to a very wide audience.
Cyber-bullies often use gossip and rumors to spread their terror. All too often, if kids (and adults for that matter) see something on the internet, they are prone to believe it. The mob mentality is often fueled by a desire to fit in or to not be bullied. This creates a perfect condition for the rumors to be spread by other kids that may believe that by participating, they will be spared the humiliation.
Cyber-bullies also use threats to instill fear. Sometimes the threats are of sharing an embarrassing detail about other kids’ lives. Other times they can post direct threats of physical violence. These threats may be very specific in order for the bully to witness the bullied child squirming or avoiding a certain place. Kids have been known to walk miles out of their way to go home in order to avoid a bully. Threats may be so vague that the target of their threat is constantly on guard, never knowing when the bully may pounce.
How to help a child you think is being bullied
To do’s for the parent or guardian
If you suspect a child is being bullied, it is important to follow your intuition and create a safe place for them to talk about it. They may be hesitant to discuss it because they are embarrassed, or scared of retribution from the bully. As they do open up, praise their courage in telling you! It is critical for you to be calm and non-shaming. Avoid making threats about calling the bullies parents, or confronting the bully yourself; this kind of behavior will likely shut your child down. Instead, focus on reassuring them that it is ok to talk to you or another trusted adult like a teacher, counselor, family friend or mentor. Even older siblings can be helpful in this area.
While standing up to a bully is sometimes effective, you need to understand that doing this can be overwhelming to your child, and pushing them to do this could prevent them from coming to you in the future. You’ll need to trust your intuition about this, and consider talking to a counselor, perhaps a school counselor who is familiar with the bully and your child. So rather than focusing on the bully, focus instead on how your child is not alone, and that they are not in trouble for being bullied, or for telling on the bully. Reassure them that other kids get bullied, too. It is a good idea to let your child know that you will decide along with them about what to do. This gives them a sense of power that has been taken from them by the bully.
Letting teachers and school administrators know about the bullying is often a very good idea as they are your eyes and ears when your child is at school. They can be sure to keep an eye on things and prevent the bullying from happening. Of course, this is not foolproof as teachers cannot be all places at all times, so teaching your child how to feel good about themselves to prevent bullying is important. Enrolling your child in an experienced martial arts school like Life Ki-Do (Central Texas) can be a powerful experience that helps your child feel better from the inside out. Most high-quality programs will involve parents in how to coach kids on feeling confident and secure. This is often a powerful repellent of bullies since they tend to approach easy targets that may feel weak or insecure.
Finally, let the teachers or administrators contact the bully’s family. You getting involved can be dangerous if their parents are aggressive. Should you still feel the need to talk directly to the bully’s parents, only do so on neutral territory, like the school, with a teacher or administrator present so that they can help mediate the discussion. As a last-ditch effort, or if serious threats or harm has occurred, you may need to get your local police involved; again, have the school involved in this process.
What to talk about with your child
Generally speaking, there are some good points to discuss with your child so that they have a solid structure to follow. Periodically discuss this with them, and look for those “teachable moments,” like TV shows and movies that involve bullying, or if you see bullying happening in public. Ask your child how they would handle it, or what advice they might give to other kids (on TV/Movie, or in public) that are being bullied.
- Steer clear of the bully – While we do not want to teach children that they need to run in fear, it can be smart to simply steer clear of the bully for a while. Sometimes they will lose interest. Should they still target your child, these other ideas can help
- Use the buddy system – There is strength in numbers, and bullies know this. They also know that they can only handle one kid at a time, and that leaves the others to go get help, or to help stand with your child.
- Practice not reacting – Bullies feed off of the power from fear. Starve them of this power by ignoring the taunts. You’ll need to rehearse this with your child. Most children’s martial arts programs will help with this. Remember though, the bully may not just give up; they may up their assault, so it is important for your child to know how to stand up for themselves both verbally and physically (how to walk tall and how to defend themselves if needed)
- Stand up to the bully – This one can be tricky as the bully may escalate their torment. Standing one’s ground sends a message of strength and confidence, powerful deterrents of bullies. Talk to your child about how to be firm, how to assert themselves. Again, if they know how to protect themselves, they will be better able to project confidence and stand tall. Most often, simply telling the bully to “Back Off!” then walking away confidently goes a long way. Remember though, the bully may pursue. Usually not, but the standing firm can take repetition for the bully to realize that your child is no longer participating with their terror.
- Talk to trusted adults, friends and mentors – Let your child know that it is not weak to talk to an adult. If you are able to relate to them, you can even share your stories of being bullied and how you successfully handled it.
- Get your child involved in clubs – Martial arts schools, sports organizations, youth organizations (YMCA/YWCA, Scouting, etc.). These organizations often actively teach anti-bullying and have kids rehearse how to stand up and prevent bullying. They also provide an excellent group of friends that your child can buddy up with, and that will stand up with each other.
Above all, be sure that you are building your child up at every opportunity. You don’t need to heap praise on so often and frequently that they feel like you pity them or are condescending but look for genuine places where you can point out their strengths. Examples would be when they do stand up to you in an appropriate way, or if they stand their ground with a friend or sibling. Or if they talk to you about what feels like an unfair grade, and they stand up to the teacher respectfully; regardless of whether the teacher changes the grade or not, praise their effort. Ideally, the teacher will do the same (you may be able to give the teacher a heads up so they can be sure to praise the courage in asking about the grade).
How can I tell if my kid is a bully?
Some bullies are easy to spot . . . the “mean” bullies. They seem angry and aggressive, they may be doing poorly in school, etc. Other bullies, however, are far more difficult to spot . . . let’s call them the “nice” bullies. They can be socially popular, get good grades, and even be quite charming to adults; this may hide a very dark side.
Signs of the mean bully
- Aggression – getting into frequent fights with other kids. This can also mean verbal aggression with kids and/or teachers
- Poor Academics – Because a bully’s home is frequently chaotic, and they may be getting taught proper responsibility, their grades may suffer. You may see them rebelling when it is time to turn in assignments (“I didn’t do that stupid assignment. It’s for dorks!”)
- Truancy – Truancy is when a child “skips” class. Remember, a bully is suffering, so they may avoid the humiliation of academic failure by simply not going to school
- Frequent injuries – Especially injuries typically associated with fighting: bloody/bruised knuckles, black eyes, fat lips, etc. Remember, some of their targets have been training in self-defense and will know how to hit back.
- Damaged clothing – Like frequent injuries, torn clothing can indicate more than simple horseplay. In extreme cases, you may even see blood stains on their clothing
- Unexplained purchases – If you are wondering how a child had the money to purchase something that you have not given them money for, and they are not the saving type, then you may begin to wonder if they are using bullying to get money from other children
- Angry isolation – Again, bullies are suffering emotionally. All too often, this pain is translated into an angry protective mechanism in an attempt to gain control over their pain. But at home, they may keep you at a distance as well by avoiding dinner and slamming their door
- General disrespect – We are talking about disrespect beyond what one might expect from a child that is learning the ropes of socialization
Signs of the “nice” bully
- Complaints from other kids – Sometimes adults are surprised to hear that “nice little Johnnie or Janet” has been cyber-bullying somebody. But it is important to take these reports seriously. You can check your child’s social media pages; ask them to show you the bullying. Typically you will see repeated occurrences of this kind of behavior; checking with other parents will help you identify this pattern
- You overhear frequent mean-spirited teasing – When you ask about it, the nice bully may say something like, “Oh they know I’m just playing! They do it to me, too! Don’t worry.” Trust your intuition though, check social media for cyber-bullying, ask around and see if there is a pattern
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Some nice bullies actually suffer from some sort of bipolar or anxiety disorder that may explain fluctuating moods that are triggered by stress at school etc. Do not ignore this, but again, we are talking about patterns, not occasional obnoxiousness.
- Injuries – The nice bully may show that dark side to the wrong kid and get punched
- Peers – Look at your children’s peer group. If you see a group of “mean girls” that are popular but seem to gain that popularity by pushing others down, it can be an indicator that this child is a nice bully (There is a movie titled Mean Girls that shows this clearly–but it can be boys too)
- Contact from the school – Your child’s school or scouting group may contact you with concerns about their behavior. If this happens, try not to be defensive. Instead, listen and work to be part of the solution. It is likely that the bullying behavior is a cry for help that your child just doesn’t have the words to express
What to do if you think your child may be a bully
If you suspect or know that your child is bullying other kids, it is important to understand that your child is hurting inside. This frequently can be tied to stress in the home. Has there been a recent divorce or death? Have you and your spouse been arguing a lot lately? Perhaps things have gotten a bit physical. Parents that easily lose their temper model this behavior for their kids and kids naturally imitate their parents. Remember, you are programming your child via your behavior.
It is important that you talk to a child counselor or child psychologist to see what you can do. Quite often, this may include you and/or your spouse getting help for your own issues. This is ok, and the reassurance that you care enough to get help will be very helpful to your child. It is common that your child may need some counseling as well, and the school counselor may be able to help. If they seem too busy, try not to lose your temper with them, they are frequently overburdened by administrative tasks and counseling. Instead, look for a professional counselor with experience working with your child’s age.
Eighty percent (yes, 80%) of behavior change in a child is directly related to behavior change in their parents. This can be a difficult pill to swallow, and sometimes parents are really not modeling anything at all. In either event, talking with a professional can help you find the solution.
Partnering with your child’s school and talk to them about what they see. Let them know that you want to be part of the solution. Most often, schools will welcome your cooperation in the matter.
Immediate, natural consequences are critical. This is not about yelling at your child and “teaching them a lesson” in an angry, punitive manner as this will only make things worse. It is about calmly explaining that certain behaviors are not ok and that when those behaviors are shown, there will be consequences that are designed to motivate them to improve their behavior. You MUST follow through on this or else your words will become empty threats that your child will not respect. Please read more about effective parenting. If you are divorced or separated, please read about effective co-parenting since this situation can be very confusing for a child, and they need to see how to manage conflict appropriately.
Teaching and modeling compassion, respect and kindness for themselves and others is a great way to prevent bullying.
It’s not just kids that get bullied
Workplace bullying is painful and annoying, at best. At worst, it’s infuriating and humiliating, especially if it is a boss or other person in a position of power; or a person that has influence with somebody that is a position of power. If you or a coworker is experiencing bullying at work, this is a serious issue. Because you are adults, you may be able to have a calm conversation with the other person and come to a mutual understanding about how they are treating you, and how things need to change. Try not to be accusatory though, this can trigger defensiveness that quickly turns into more bullying. If you don’t feel comfortable trying this step, then you can talk to your supervisor or Human Resources (HR) to get some ideas. In some cases, they will need to intervene. An unsafe work environment does not help a company succeed, so the leaders and HR are motivated to help resolve these situations. It may be difficult to deal with this head on, but remember, what you are dealing with is already difficult.
But the workplace is not the only venue for adult bullying. Adults can experience bullying in bars, at parties, and anywhere politics may be discussed (this is frequently seen via social media). When alcohol is involved, this kind of behavior can create physical violence rather quickly as people’s ability to filter out aggression is compromised. The best course of action when alcohol is involved is to simply gracefully exit. An intoxicated person is difficult to reason with. If you have been drinking, you may be able to simply go to a different part of the bar or party. But if you need to leave entirely, DO NOT DRIVE. Call a cab or ride-sharing company. During holidays, many cab companies offer free rides home.
In politics, it is important to note that this is a highly emotionally charged topic, and people need to vent. They may not even be aware of they are coming across as bullies. On social media, you may see this kind of bullying as passive-aggressive taunts or “joking around.” It may also take the form of ridicule thinly veiled as teaching or venting (or, as I said, as joking). If it bothers you, resist the urge to take the bait–don’t respond to those posts with counterpoints designed to ridicule or highlight weak arguments. If you see somebody posting things that frequently anger you, unfollow them; you don’t have to delete or unfriend them, but on Facebook, for example, you can simply choose to not see specific people’s posts for a while. This can be very difficult as we have an urge to stand up for our beliefs, and even attack those that we feel are attacking us. If you have taken the bait, it is ok to private message somebody and to apologize for your side. Most people are quite forgiving and have done the same themselves. You’re certainly under no obligation to do this, and if you catch it early, there may be no need to do this. Simply stop taking the bait, delete your comments if you like, and move on. If you have established your own pattern of being snarky, condescending, demeaning, self-righteous, defensive, offensive or verbally aggressive, you may want to make some apologies. Some people will put up a public post–this is up to you, but often a private message is more personal.
Learn more about Counseling for Trauma and PTSD in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.