Bullying. Social aggression. Physical aggression. “Mean”. “Burn”. “Diss”. “Cut”. Whatever the name or term, it’s damaging. We have a problem in society and sometimes trying to pin down exactly what to call it only gets in the way of doing something about it. For the purposes of this article, and series, I will be using the terms bully/bullying, aggression and “mean” fairly interchangeably although technically bullying has specific defining terms. The reason for using these terms interchangeably is that when lower scale mean behaviors, or social and physical aggression, are common that helps create a culture where bullying is acceptable.
What is bullying?
First, let’s get the definition of bullying as a technical term out of the way. For research purposes, bullying involves 1) a power difference between the person (or group) doing the bullying and the person being bullied, 2) intentional harm (physical, relational and verbal all included), 3) repetition over time.
One source includes the idea that contempt is at the root of bullying but that is too simplistic. How many of us have seen, for example, a group of girls who are supposedly friends taking turns intentionally making another girl feel bad for a period of time only to have the target of the mean behavior suddenly shift to someone else? That is bullying in the form of relational aggression and it doesn’t matter that the kids are all “friends”.
Not my child so why should I care?
Actually, there’s a pretty good chance that anyone’s child will at some point in time be either the bully, the bullied or a bystander who is complicit. One of the largest studies on bullying (N = 13, 177) showed that nearly 25% of students suffered frequent bullying. Another smaller scale study (Zeigler & Rosenstein-Manner, 1991) in grades 4-8 showed 35% of the students surveyed had been bullied.
Now think about your own experiences in childhood and adolescence, or even adulthood. How often have you engaged in social aggression? How often have you experienced it on the receiving end? How often have you witnessed it and either played along (e.g., laughing or more direct participation) or did nothing? In reality, all human beings have the potential to be in all the roles of bully, bullied or bystander so that means anyone’s child can be as well.
One of the ways adults are failing children in this societal problem is by minimizing or denying what’s really going on. We look the other way. We excuse the behavior as “that’s just the way boys/girls/kids are”. We don’t believe “good” kids might be mean, especially when they are charming and/or smart in front of adults. We celebrate power, status and physical aggression in our society so sometimes the adults are actually encouraging bully behavior and rewarding it.
So, this article applies to anyone’s child. Everyone’s children. We have a societal problem and it’s causing harm. Self esteem takes a hit whether the child is the one doing the bullying, being bullied or standing by in complicity. Frequent bullying and a sense of having no control to change circumstances can often lead the bullied person to either suicide or acts of violence against others. It’s vital that everyone start caring before things go to the extreme.
What can I do?
Let’s face it, adults have to be the ones to change first or our children and teens never will. The very first and most important thing to do is to stop making excuses. Recognize that the child in question might be yours. Be aware of your own attitudes of entitlement, of accepting aggression (verbal, relational or physical) as being ok. Make sure that neither the bully nor the bullied are condemned because then there is no place for redemption and repair. That does NOT mean that those bullying are not held accountable or expected to change their behavior. Recognize in thought, word and deed that all people deserve to be treated with respect, care and dignity.
Parents, teachers, administrators, coaches–everyone needs to work together and work hard to change the culture that allows and sometimes promotes bullying. Make sure not to fall into the trap of false equivalencies. Bullying is not the same as normal conflict and cannot be managed by putting the bully and the bullied in the same room to “talk it out” or each take their share of the responsibility for the problem. In time, perhaps, the bully and bullied may be able to talk about things in the same room but that’s after a process of reconciliatory justice, not as a starting point. Also, no kid “asks” to be bullied and so creating the false equivalency of mutual contribution is abusive and keeps the cycle going.
Do not promote or celebrate an us/them mentality or behavior. Take care to avoid the winners or losers notion that an overly competitive society encourages. Be aware that telling a bullied child to “stop tattling” or “ignore them” has been shown by research to make things WORSE. Don’t write things off as a “misunderstanding” or suggest the bullied child needs thicker skin. Recognize that most kids don’t tell so if someone takes the risk to raise the issue, the way an adult responds determines whether or not children in general can trust something will be done to help rather than hurt. Finally, let’s be honest about how often the measures to promote character, good citizenship or bully-prevention in schools is really just lip service. Kids see right through that and act accordingly. As adults we can do better. We MUST do better. Kids are counting on us.
Come back for more on the bullying series and please, share with others. We must all work together to make a difference. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever had.” Margaret Mead.
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