Many sources report that the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of bullying, and the Stopbullying.gov website reports that as many as 28 percent of sixth-to twelfth-grade students have been bullied. As parents, we want to protect our children from bullies, but it’s often hard to know exactly how to do that. Empowering students through education and with strategies for not joining in, seeking adult help, taking a stand, mobilizing peer response or befriending the bullied peer offer another layer of resources to combat this problem.
Understand What Bullying Is
It is often difficult to distinguish bullying vs normal conflict; it is important to do so, however, because they require very different responses on the part of bystanders and adults.
Social conflict refers to disagreements between two or more people with equal power or control. Generally, both parties are very emotional about the argument, which usually centers on something external to both sides: siblings arguing over which television show to watch or who gets the biggest piece of cake, peers squabbling over a potential girlfriend or boyfriend. Typically, both parties want the problem resolved, and both are usually willing to take responsibility and will show remorse, eventually. Most often, if the external focus goes away, the conflict ends. Nicole Merritt, owner and founder of jthreeNMe, shares words of wisdom from Signe Whitson, child and adolescent therapist: “There is a real need to draw a distinction between behavior that is rude, behavior that is mean, and behavior that is characteristic of bullying.”
According to stopbullying.gov, bullying looks very different from everyday conflict and disagreement. A bully fully intends to hurt the target, either physically or emotionally, and behaves aggressively to do so. Bullying is a pattern of behavior, rather than a single episode; it always involves an imbalance of power that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the target to make it stop, such as a bigger student harassing a smaller one or a popular student bullying someone less popular.
Bullying is also characterized by a difference in the emotional response to the actions. In a normal social quarrel, the reactions are fairly equal; when bullying is involved, the victim feels fear, perhaps anger, but the bully has little or no emotional response at all. The bully is seeking power, control or material possessions, rather than the resolution sought in ordinary conflict. The threats are often very serious, and the bully may blame the target for the problem.
Avoid Becoming the Bully Parent
Tim Gilmore, president of Growing Leaders, points out, “In many cases, parents are thrilled that their popular kid is the bully, not the bullied. They stand up for their kid’s behavior and teach their child to do the same. Further, a parent who dotes and backs up their kids at every turn frequently gives them the license to feel both entitled and able to attack anyone not like them.
Understanding the difference between social conflict and bullying can help you avoid those tendencies. It is important not to intervene too quickly in normal social conflict situations. While it is nice to believe that people can always get along, the reality is that, even as adults, folks disagree, sometimes to the point of loud arguments. It is important for children and teens to have the opportunity to learn to resolve issues for themselves. As a parent or teacher, your best help is to teach your child conflict resolution skills like active listening and compromise. If necessary, you might referee a discussion between the sides, but let the feuding factions lead the conversation. On the other hand, real bullying requires immediate intervention.
It is important not to intervene too quickly in these kinds of situations. While it is nice to believe that people can always get along, the reality is that, even as adults, folks disagree, sometimes to the point of loud arguments. It is important for children and teens to have the opportunity to learn to resolve issues for themselves. As a parent or teacher, your best help is to teach your child conflict resolution skills like active listening and compromise. If necessary, you might referee a discussion between the sides, but let the feuding factions lead the conversation.
Help Your Children Understand What Bullying Is
Christopher Min, Ph.D., psychologist at CHOC Children’s in Orange County, encourages parents to “teach your child to recognize bullying tactics – what bullying can look like (e.g., verbal teasing/taunting, physical aggression/fighting, frequent pranks, comments and photos on social media).” Stopbullying.gov experts concur that children need to understand that bullying is “being mean over and over again,” and that it includes “teasing, talking about hurting someone, spreading rumors, intentionally leaving kids out,” and not only physically attacking or intimidating someone.
Be Aware of What Is Happening During Your Child’s Day
Misty Martin, Ed.S in educational leadership, encourages parents to skip the generic, “How was your day?” in favor of specific questions. She suggests asking things like:
Who did you play with today?
Who did you sit with at lunch today? What did you talk about?
Stopbullying.gov experts add questions like:
What is lunch time like at your school?
What is it like to ride the bus?
Who do you talk with during the day, and what do you take about?