Sticks and Stones
When I was in elementary school, a classmate in my circle of friends refused to invite me to her events, would bring gifts for everyone besides me and single me out incessantly, leading to many a night crying. Later, in junior high, that same girl was given a note by our slightly larger group of girlfriends, telling her she was no longer welcome in the circle and to find new friends. I still remember how broken she looked sitting on the grass, sobbing. I was glad I didn’t sign the note.
I’m now a mother in my 30s and can recall when “bully” was just a part of the growing-up lexicon—something to be dealt with, a right of passage, if you will. But what if the popular ideology was wrong? Was I “bullied” by today’s standards? Was she? And, perhaps the most confounding question of all: Would things have been different if social media had been a part of the equation?
TOO QUICK TO CRY “BULLY”?“I definitely think the term ‘bullying’ is thrown around indiscriminately these days,” writes Emily Wyckoff, a mostly-stay-at-home mom of three and frequent contributor to rachelray.com. “[For example], a child crying bully when their fourth grade classmate decides to not be their friend anymore. Bullying? I think typical behavior for 10-year-olds…” Placerville-based LMFT, Psy.D. Dr. Dee-Anna Dreier adds, “If someone upsets someone, they can instantly be labeled a ‘bully’ without proper investigation of both sides leading up to the event.”
WHAT IS BULLYING?According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.
TEASING VS. BULLYINGDr. Dreier notes that childhood teasing usually involves two peers of equal age-appropriate development that have the ability to defend themselves and not feel powerless against the teasing, whereas bullying often has more of a power differential between the bully and the child being bullied. “Parents are protective and can be quick to judge another child’s behavior without making a reasonable deciphering of what is normal teasing between peers and what is bullying.”
Leslie DeDora, founder and executive director of A Touch of Understanding, a Granite Bay-based nonprofit that provides disability awareness programs, agrees. School-aged children, she notes, are still learning social skills and cues, and are prone to inadvertent teasing, carelessness and immaturity. Bullies, on the other hand, control, manipulate and take advantage of others for their own benefit. “It’s the intent and measure of impact that determines whether a child’s actions can be labeled as bullying.”
The difference between normal childhood teasing and bullying is that bullying tends to be more psychologically damaging than teasing. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that bullying is associated with poor physical and mental health among children, particularly among those who were bullied in the past and are currently being bullied.
ENCOURAGE THE OPPOSITEIt’s important to start bullying prevention early, notes Dr. Dreier. ”The first place to start is at home. Treating other members of the family how they want to be treated is the first premise of bullying prevention.” Open communication about bullying between the child and parents is also critical, as parents sometimes mistake a child’s reaction to bullying as a behavior problem, when in actuality, it’s the child trying to convey what is happening to them.
DeDora adds that more information needs to be given to children in order for them to understand the differences between all individuals. “In general, the more educated children are about people’s differences, the less chance there is to be frightened. Many times young people simply aren’t given enough information, which inspires fear. Knowledge makes a difference.”
Parents, school staff and other adults all have a role to play in preventing bullying, too. They can help kids understand bullying, keep the lines of communication open, encourage kids to do what they love, and model how to treat others with kindness and respect.
TAKING ACTIONThese days, it’s typical for schools to have a “zero tolerance” policy for bullying behaviors, which theoretically would foster a safe dialogue between children, teachers and counselors. However, DeDora says that the often parroted “tell an adult” philosophy may not be the best approach. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it only exacerbates the situation.” As every situation is different, the key lies in trying to understand why a bully bullies in the first place. “We need to protect the bullied child, of course, but as a community, we need to look at the bigger picture, as the bullying child is symptomatic of a larger issue.” Are the bully’s parents approachable and open to a dialogue, or would that foster an even more hostile environment? Is the teacher or counselor capable of remedying the situation? As there is no set answer, says DeDora, it’s imperative to find “that one adult” who will keep the child safe, as they inevitably risk becoming fodder to increased abuse by the bully for “telling” on them.
Lastly, it’s important to bear in mind that all kids involved in bullying—whether they’re bullied, bully others or see bullying—can be affected, so it’s important to support everyone. The commitment to stop bullying requires a consistent effort, since bullying is a behavior that repeats or has the potential to be repeated. We know this because, again, we’ve all been there.
RESOURCES ON THE RISEArea school and social service programs are evolving to help further the prevention of bullying. Even county- and state-level mental health agencies are developing anti-bullying programs.
A Touch of Understanding
Granite Bay, 916-791-4146
Bullying Prevention Project
California Department of Education