Did you know that October is National Bullying Prevention Month? Recently, Dr. Allyson Maida, a full-time psychotherapist and Associate Adjunct Professor at St. John’s University’s Criminal Justice Department, spoke on the topic at a local event held at Westport’s Salon Paul Michael. We decided to follow up with Maida, asking her whether bullying has gotten worse in recent years, signs your child is being targeted, how to deal with a situation when and if it arises, and more.
In your opinion, has bullying gotten more frequent, or worse, since we were kids?
Such a great question. This depends upon who you are talking to. Chances are I am a bit older than many of your readers. No, I do not believe that bullying is worse now than in than my Gen X, or anyone else’s generation. Historically, bullies use any means available to harass their target. Presently, bullies have opportunities to bully in-person and through technology such as telephones, texting and other cyber systems. As the use of technology increases, so does cyberbullying. Reporting, media exposure, policy and program development occur more frequently than ever before. So, now it seems as if bullying has worsened but it has not.
How common is bullying?
It is extremely common. It is daily, likely happening somewhere right now and one-minute ago. It is local, national and global. More than one out of every five students report being bullied.
What are some signs of bullying in young school age kids?
Reading elementary school kids can be difficult at times. We love our children so much that we shudder at the thought of them having their feeling hurt. We are so attuned to our children that we try to watch and interpret every nuance, yet there are times where we can either miss or misinterpret what we are hearing and/or seeing. We can confuse peer-conflict with aggression. Both young children and teens may show signs of bullying. There are also some kids who mask these signs as they are embarrassed, uncomfortable with thoughts of spending more time facing the issue or they may simply be afraid. For the most part, signs of bullying are similar whether experienced in elementary, middle, high school or college. The difference between the reactions of younger or older kids is that they verbalize differently, and behaviors will be appropriate to the age group.
Common signs of bullied children are seen in behavioral changes such as:
- Trouble getting out of bed/not wanting to go to school
- Change of routines to get to school/uncomfortable walking to school
- Change in sleeping or eating patterns
- Frequent tears, anger, frustration, mood swings, increased sensitivity
- Stomach aches, headaches, or unexplained pain
- Unexplained physical injuries such as bruises or scratches
- Avoiding classroom and recreation activities
- Missing personal items such as clothing, money, food, school supplies
- Coming home unusually hungry
- Falling grades
- Changes in friends or friend groups
- Sadness or significant frustration about relationships
- Sudden change/discomfort in social circumstances or becoming the target of teasing, or ridicule
- Show an unwillingness to discuss their online communication
Why are kids most often targeted?
Kids are targeted for a handful of reasons which can be categorized under a handful of topics. However, the bottom line is that bullying is the same as prejudice. Bullies zero in on those who they do not understand or find to be a threat. Boiled down, those bullied are generally different than most of the other kids in their peer group.
Kids are often targeted because they are the quiet/shy kid, are not as socially adept as their peers, have disabilities (regardless of whether they are physical, emotional or academic), come from a family that is “different”, exhibit a sexual orientation that is different than their sex at birth (i.e.: transgender), exhibit a sexual preference that is not specifically heterosexual (i.e.: bisexual), have low self-esteem, are a perceived threat to someone’s popularity (i.e.: gaining the attention and acceptance of a teacher, coach or other kids).
What is peer-conflict and peer-abuse?
Conflict and abuse are different. Conflict is when two or more people do not agree about a specific topic. With different perspectives, their opinions are not aligned and in conflict, leaving everyone frustrated. Eventually, they agree to disagree, come to a compromise or see the other person’s reasoning.
Abuse is deliberate, preconceived, creates patterns of behaviors and events that include an imbalance of power. Peer-abuse may begin as a conflict and develop into bullying. Bullies look for opportunities to pursue and overpower the other kid. They may do this alone or create group to intensify intimidation. Although not always, those bullied find they are a target of this aggression over and again.
As a parent, what is the most important thing for us to do if we suspect our child is being bullied?
Observe and listen. Listen to the frustration that your child feels. Do not be too quick to dismiss social issues that, as an adult, you would sweep under the rug. If your child and the bully are enrolled in school (or a program) contact the appropriate party to let them know. This may be a teacher, guidance counselor, principal or program leader. Depending upon the circumstance you may choose to contact the parents of the bully and suggest that everyone work together to resolve the issue(s). As many states and school districts have bullying policies, there is an obligation to address the issue as soon as it is reported. Keep in mind that although these policies or laws are in place, you are still speaking to other human beings. After they explain their protocol to you and act accordingly, if you do not see enough of a change, re-approach or go to a more influential source within the school/program. Remain involved and ask that the school/program keep you in the loop. Chances are that your child is not the only one in this situation and your child needs to feel assured that action is being taken. If you believe that your child is bullying others, do the same thing. Bullies need help too. They only bully because they are not happy with something. Be sensitive to the fact that most children are afraid of retaliation so they may beg you to stop helping. If that is the case, work “behind the scenes” – become stealthily effective. The outcome is what matters most, not your overt presence. If the bullying continues and help cannot be found elsewhere it is not out of order to contact the police for advice and intervention where needed.
No one wants to think that their children are being picked on or are the bully. I have seen so many parents insist that their child(ren) “would never do that”, when in fact they are doing “that”. Instead of worrying about how we look as parents, as if our children’s behavior is a public display of our success or failure, let’s take an active role in objective parenting. Objectivity is based upon what is really happening. Let’s raise our kids to be socially responsible and respectable. Anything else is a mistake.
Why is bullying an issue that needs to be addressed—and not just “kids being kids”?
Kids being kids refers to children developing. They are stretching their wings, testing the world as they know it, which includes conflict, disappointment and problem-solving. Kids being kids includes defining who they are and deciding who are friends, acquaintances, frienemies and people that they should not be friends with at all. Kids are not always nice, and they are simply trying to make the world make sense.
Bullying needs to be identified and addressed as soon as possible. The longer bulling is experienced the greater the impact. These experiences are rarely forgotten as they help the young developing mind to realize that people may not be as trustworthy as they seem, and that life can hurt. The more these thoughts occur the more they define future thoughts and perceptions. Bullying can provoke aggression that turns the nicest kid into that kid with an attitude and intense opinion. Generally, where that occurs, aggression is around the corner. Bullies can also shift their perceptions as they experience the intense responses of a victim. A bully can begin to feel badly about their aggressive role and become the victim of those they have bullied with. Therefore, as parents and adults on-site, we need to keep our ears and eyes open as children interact and develop their social selves. We are here to provide and instill healthy guiding principles – kids rely upon that.