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 2011 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.'
This is particularly common during the teen years.
Teenagers think bullying is something that happens in elementary school, Lowen says. They think of it as something they've outgrown.
But the numbers indicate the problem continues to plague children. 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. Children 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 bullying is a round-the-clock scourge. No longer do schoolmates' taunts and threats 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 (cyberbullying.us), a Web-based clearinghouse for research and resources on cyberbullying.
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. Renowned parenting educator Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence (Three Rivers Press), knows the fatigue surrounding the word. They're so sick of talking about bullying, she says. My son is like, ‘Mom, I got it. We had an assembly last week. I got it.'
Many adolescents, Lowen notes in The Essential Guide to Bullying: Prevention and Intervention (Alpha), which she co-wrote with psychotherapist Cindy Miller, dismiss bullying and harmful teasing as drama.
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.
• Get creative to get kids talking. Hey, how are things going on the team, morale-wise? Lowen suggests. Do kids sit in cliques during lunch at your school?
You want to pose more neutral questions that start a conversation, she says, rather than asking specifically about the big label of bullying.
• 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.
Teens, already loathe to exchange a lot of extra words with parents, also want to save face.
For most older kids it's very humiliating to tell their parents, says clinical psychologist Peter Sheras, author of Your Child: Bully or Victim? Understanding and Ending School Yard Tyranny (Fireside). They feel like they're a dork or a disappointment or even a burden — ‘Now my dad is going to have to take time off work and come to school to deal with this. My mom is so busy. She doesn't have time for this.' So they just don't say anything.
Many will choose to live alone with the pain or try to alleviate it in harmful ways.
The teenagers I spoke to told me some of their tricks to mask the pain: Every night they skim a half-ounce off the bottles in the liquor cabinet. They hit their parents' Xanax. They're cutting and wearing long sleeves to hide it, Goldman says. If you suspect a problem and your child says, ‘No, everything's fine,' it's important to follow your gut and make sure. The kids I spoke to all reached a place of extreme crisis before they spoke up.
• 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,' Goldman says. 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.
It also gives the impression they're on their own to deal with the angst.
Some dads, especially, will say, ‘Same thing happened to me when I was your age. I broke the bully's arm, and that was that,' Sheras says. Then the child feels like, ‘If I'm not good enough to do that, I guess I'm going to have to spend the rest of my life being beaten to a pulp.'
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 and say, ‘I demand Charlie is brought into this office this instant to put an end to this,' Lowen says. Or, ‘I'm gonna drive over to that kid's house right now and tell his mother.'
Or parents interrogate their child to the point of the child feeling blamed, Wiseman says. ‘Where were you? Who was there? Did you talk to the teacher? What did the teacher say? What did you say to the other kid?' she says. All of these questions come across as accusations, and the kid just shuts down.
• Find a solution together. It's tempting to dive in and fix it for them — but they're the ones who have to live with the solution.
Stop what you're doing and say, ‘Wow, that's really hard. I'm really sorry that happened to you,' Wiseman says. ‘Thank you so much for telling me, and let's sit down and think about what we can do about it.'
Develop a plan of what your child and you want to have happen, Lowen says. Is it a matter of asking the principal to reassign a locker to somewhere in the building with more supervision? Is it asking a teacher to stand in the hall between classes? Is it helping your teen put together a list of things they want to bring to the principal? Do they want a counselor present?
We have to build our children's trust that we're not going to react to things they've told us in a way that's uncomfortable to them, Lowen says. And we have to give them the skills and the confidence to say, ‘I have a part in this. I'm not just a target; I'm part of the solution.'
Remember 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 combating and alleviating the pain of bullying.
Parents are probably more aware of what's going on in their kids' social circles than ever before, Lowen says. If you notice someone's conspicuously not in a group anymore, ask about it. If you hear your daughter and her friends talking bad about someone, pay attention and bring it up.
And sometimes they just need a reminder that things get better.
They haven't lived through a zillion relationships that break up and make up and grief and loss and job changes, Goldman says. They don't know how resilient they can be. They don't have a lot of evidence or proof that life goes on.
Set a goal, Goldman says. '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.
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.
It's really hard to get that phone call from another parent or the school, says Cynthia Lowen, producer and writer of the 2011 documentary Bully. Parents feel vulnerable and wonder, 'What values have I given my kid? What have they seen going on between me and my partner?' It's personal.
But consider the news a blessing, she says. 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.
Humiliated, a lot of parents want to shut themselves off from the messenger. Big mistake, Lowen says.
Work together to get to the bottom of the issue, she says. Use it as an opportunity to say, ‘Things have gotten totally off-track here. How do we get this back on track?' All of us at some point will misuse our power, she says. This isn't always the portrait of a little sociopath. The majority of kids don't continue to use those behaviors as the way in which they navigate the world.