By Susan Davis Gryder 2013-12-03 15:28:10
No more averted eyes, embarrassed chuckles or unspoken sympathies: Take a stand against bullying in your school—and help kids to do the same. Although it’s hardly a new issue among generations of youth, concerns about the extent and consequences of bullying are gaining greater attention. Between social media and the 24/7 news cycle, it’s more difficult today to turn a blind eye to incidents of bullying. It seems that every few days there is yet another story of the horrific and often downright tragic consequences of vicious bullying. And because the problem is so longstanding and so insidious, publicly disclosed incidents carry a universal resonance among kids and adults alike. After all, most of us, as adults, can recall incidents of our own youth when we were victims of bullying—or when we shamefully stood by as witnesses who failed to speak up. Fortunately, school systems and lawmakers are paying attention to these stories, too. They are taking more frequent and aggressive steps to stand up to bullying—and, even more important, to stop it before it starts. Nonetheless, bullying remains a big problem for America’s kids and teens. The National Education Association estimates that every day, 160,000 children miss school due to a fear of bullying. In fact, 15% of school absenteeism is said to result from bullying. Taking a Stand Against Bullying Helping Kids Stand up to Bullying Bullying feels so pervasive and, in some ways culturally entrenched, that making sustainable steps toward reducing it may seem both overwhelming and discouraging. But research shows that parents, educators and others in the school community can play a big role in deterring bullying. Anti-bullying techniques can be effective, but only if all members of the community make a concerted effort to put them to work! Adults must create channels for youngsters who observe or experience bullying to get help; but the first step is ensuring that kids are equipped with the right vocabulary. For example, children may not be able to articulate that they are being bullied, complaining instead about “mean kids” or referencing “drama.” What’s more, kids hear a lot about bullying in the abstract; they may not want to label certain behavior as bullying—especially if they like (or fear) the perpetrator or are distrustful of adult authorities. To counter this, parents and teachers should focus on getting kids to describe the behavior and its effects, rather than focusing on a label. Even if no one’s talking, parents and teachers can be alert to a number of signs that a child might be the victim of bullying. These include: • unexplained injuries • damage to belongings • change in eating or sleeping habits • desire to avoid school or other specific social situations • declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork • expressed feelings of helplessness, despair, self-blame, talk of suicide, self destructive behaviors • a sudden, gradual or sustained decline in the number of friends Bullyproofing Kids Dr. Laura Markham is a clinical psychologist who devotes her practice to parent coaching. She is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, and provides parenting advice at ahaparenting.com. Parents can take steps to help prevent their child from becoming a victim—and from becoming a bully. The key, Markham says, is teaching them empathy through talking and listening. “I think we are so busy with the routine and the press of everyday life that we don’t take the time to really listen to kids and help them reflect on their experiences and feel empowered to make a difference,” she observes. “Every conversation we have with kids is an opportunity to help kids learn to empathize with others.” Developing empathy starts early, says Markham, urging adults to speak respectfully to even small children and stay calm during stressful situations. “If you stay calm when your child acts up—which is the hardest thing in the world to do!—and extend respect while setting appropriate limits, you show them that you take their emotions seriously and teach them that they are worthy of respect.” Kids who feel respected and who experience empathy toward others are less likely to bully others and will be more likely to stand up for themselves or other victims when confronted by bullying. While Markham’s advice is directed toward parents, many of her suggestions can be embraced by other adults who connect with kids, including cafeteria staff who interact with children in many ways, including as formal and informal mentors. After all, adults are powerful forces in shaping kids’ behavior toward each other, she notes; early interactions between adults and kids set the tone for future social behavior, for better or for worse. To help kids develop resilience against bullying and avoid engaging in bullying behavior themselves, Markham recommends that adults, particularly parents, be mindful of the following steps. 1. Model compassionate, respectful relationships from the time your child is small. 2. Stay connected to your child through thick and thin. 3. Model confident behavior with other people. Speak up, and don’t put yourself or your child down. 4. Teach your child basic social skills: how to join the game, introduce himself, initiate a playdate, etc. 5. Make sure your child knows how to practice basic bullying avoidance: sit up front on the bus, at a lunch table located near teachers or chaperones, etc. 6. Coach your child to handle teasing and bullying by role-playing. Encourage her to stand up for herself against verbal aggression, which is the first tool of bullies. 7. Teach your child to intervene as a bystander to prevent bullying. He can, for example, stand with the victim or interrupt the confrontation with a neutral phrase, such as “The teacher sent me to find you,” and by walking together toward adult help. Markham also emphasizes the value of ensuring that children have a wide group of friends. “Don’t put all their social eggs in one basket!” she stresses. Kids who travel in different circles—in class, on a team, as part of an extracurricular club—can find some relief from bullying by switching venues. Other experts suggest helping children develop physical confidence by providing access to a variety of activities, from sports to martial arts to dance class. Bystanders Can Make a Difference Bullies get their power from other people’s silence, and researchers are concluding that one of the most effective ways to stop bullying is to help bystanders know what to do when they observe it. There’s no denying the fact that it’s an act of courage to stand up to a bully, but parents and other key adults can help kids learn some techniques to improve their reactions in the moment. Here are some simple steps that kids can learn that may help stop a bully in his or her tracks: • Don’t give bullying an audience. Don’t laugh or otherwise encourage the bully’s mean behavior. If it’s a cyberbullying situation, don’t post or participate. • Set a good example. Treat other people kindly. If you believe someone is a victim of a bully, show friendship openly to him. • Help the victim get away while staying safe yourself. Create a distraction, change the focus to something else or use neutral language to get the victim away from the bully. • Tell a trusted adult: a parent or relative, a teacher, a school counselor. Most school systems have ways for adults to report bullying that will require the school to take action. Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Photography by www.istockphoto.com and www.jiunlimited.com. SNAPSHOT • Cyberbullying is a disturbing and increasingly prevalent way that kids experience bullying. • It’s estimated that only one in six parents knows when their child has been the target of social media bullies. • Bullies get their power from other people’s silence; one of the most effective ways to stop bullying is to help bystanders know what to do when they observe it. Bullying 101: Behind the Bullying Epidemic What Is Bullying? The website StopBullying.gov defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” The idea of a power imbalance is an important component and is helpful in separating genuine bullying from other types of conflict among children. Counter to the stereotype of the schoolyard bully, the domineering behavior doesn’t have to be physical; in fact, many of the most high profile bullying cases of recent years haven’t involved physical contact, but name calling, online harassment, unfounded rumors and painful social exclusion. Some experts have coined a new term for the old problem: relational aggression. Frequently applied to so-called “mean girl” behavior, relational aggression can involve teasing, intimidation, exclusion and cyberbullying, and it’s most common among tweens. Relational aggression can be even harder to spot by parents and authorities than physical bullying, particularly if it’s taking place on social media like Instagram, but it’s just as destructive. Specialists tend to identify three “players” in a bullying incident: the victim, the bully (or bullies) and the bystanders. Anyone can become a victim of bullying, but certain kids are at greater risk, especially those perceived as being “different” due to a wide array of factors, such as physical appearance, clothing, newcomer/outsider, economic status, LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) identity and mental/emotional/ physical disability. Frequently, victims are kids who already are suffering from depression or anxiety, or who lack commonly accepted social skills and are therefore perceived as annoying, antagonizing or unable to get along with others. Victims are often seen as weak and unable to defend themselves. Similarly, bullies aren’t a single “type,” although many are youngsters who are perceived as popular and even well-behaved. Other risk factors for bullying include those who have social power and those are overly concerned about popularity, as well as those who like to dominate or be in charge, who view violence in a positive way, who have issues at home or less parental involvement, plus those who have friends who bully others. The third player in the triangle, the bystander, can be just about anyone else. Studies show that bystanders have a great deal of power to stop bullying by showing support to the victim or getting help from authorities. Yet they often feel powerless or fear becoming victims themselves, and therefore do nothing. In fact, one of a bully’s strongest influences is the ability to make a bystander fear reprisals. Bullies depend on the silence of bystanders. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that an adult is notified about bullying only about half the time. This isn’t surprising: Being a victim is humiliating, especially for kids who already feel helpless and socially isolated. Bullying With the Click of a Mouse A parent’s frame of reference for bullies is often the one stereotyped in media and entertainment: the schoolyard bully, shoving smaller kids, dishing out physical intimidation and relentless humiliation (think the jocks and their slushie throwing at the show choir members of TV’s “Glee”). But these days, a bully is likely to use a smartphone as the weapon of choice. Cyberbullying—one of the most disturbing and prevalent ways that kids and teens experience bullying—is conducted through social media, text messages, instant chats, photo sharing and websites. According to online Internet accountability watchdog CovenantEyes.com, cyberbullying can include: • gossip • exclusion • impersonation • harassment • cyberstalking • “flaming” (posting offensive messages on websites, forums or blogs) • outing/tricking someone into revealing embarrassing secrets • cyberthreats implying violent behavior Cyberbullying is especially painful since it can happen 24/7—victims have no real escape. Bullies can use commenting sites like Ask.fm to remain anonymous and attract more viewers and commenters; sometimes, complete strangers join in on the harassment! This type of bullying can ramp up swiftly and painfully. “It used to be, if you made a mistake and said something embarrassing, a few people heard you,” explains one Washington, D.C.- area eighth-grader. “Now, everyone sees it. People can use social media to turn an entire school against one person in about 10 minutes.” The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 32% of teenagers say they have been targets of online bullying, including having private messages forwarded without their permission, having an embarrassing picture posted or having rumors spread about them online. More victims are girls, and the more information a teen shares online, the more likely she is to become a target of cyberbullying. Despite widespread media attention to the issue, it’s estimated that only one in six parents knows when their child has been the target of social media bullies, even if their child is a repeat victim. The technology barrier allows bullies to remain covert to many oblivious (and/or tech-impaired) parents and school authorities. “Parents today don’t have any idea what kind of bullying is really going on,” laments the D.C.-area teen. Laying Down the Law One app roach to curbing bullying is to create a legal framework to protect victims and stop perpetrators. While there’s no federal anti-bullying law, federal civil rights laws cover discriminatory harassment that is severe, pervasive or persistent; creates a hostile environment; and is based on a student’s race, color, nationality, original sex, disability or religion. Some incidents of bullying fall into these categories, and schools that receive federal funding are required to address this kind of discrimination. State laws are another story: Anti-bullying laws and policies abound , according to Stopbullying.gov. Depending on the state, statutes may define bullying, require reporting by adults, describe requirements for investigation and response, require written records, apply sanctions and mandate referrals of victims and perpetrators to counseling or mental health services. Many include provisions for anti -bullying training and preventive education. Most apply to school settings and cover cyberbullying. But each state’s approach is different. Alabama, for example, requires a “series of graduated consequences for any student who commits an act of intimidation, harassment, violence or threat of violence.” Connecticut, New Mexico and Oklahoma also establish specific sanctions against individuals who commit bullying. Mary land requires that a school district’s bullying policy include referrals to support services, while Massachusetts mandates school districts provide ongoing professional development to build the bullying response skills not only among teachers but also cafeteria staff, bus drivers and custodians. Do you know the law in your state? Standing Together: Resources for Kids and Teens Bullying create s a lonely space, whether a child is the victim, a bystander or even the bully. Schools and parent s must continue to promote safe ways for youngster s to express their feelings and treat one another with compassion. While the Internet can be a source of destructive bullying behavior, it also can be a valuable resource for kids and teens to l earn about anti-bullying techniques in a language and with images that resonate. Following are just a few of many online resources established for children and teenagers who are struggling with bullying in their lives or in their schools: • Dosomething.org: An online-based anti-bullying organization developed to help kids stand up to bullying. This website has a fun, interactive “bully text” game that helps kids learn to make good choices about social media use. • Opheliaproject.org: Strives to reduce aggression and support youth who are affected by bullying, while creating safe social climates. • Pacerkidsagainstbullying.org: A resource site sponsored by the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, an organization that fosters help and support for families of kids with disabilities, including how to deal with bullying. • Stopbullying.gov (888-ASK-HRSA): Government resource for younger kids to help them learn to deal with bullying, including a just-forkids page with kid-oriented “webisodes” illustrating how to recognize and stand up to bullying, and interactive games. • Thetrevorproject.org (Hotline 866-4-U-Trevor): 24-hour crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBT youth. BONUS WEB CONTENT As this article was going to press, some of the top headlines in the news media were about a professional football player sanctioned for aggressive bullying behavior against a teammate. It served as a sad reminder that bullying isn’t confined to the K-12 school environment and happens in a wide range of workplaces. School Nutrition offers some tips for readers who experience or witness bullying on the j ob. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent to access this exclusive online content. Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Photography by www.istockphoto.com and www.jiunlimited.com.
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