As we have witnessed recently, the educational system is broken on many levels.
If your child is being bullied, do not rely on your child’s school to fix the problem.
More than 40 states have anti-bullying laws that require schools to adopt a set of safety policies, but most teachers have little experience in anti-bullying training. Expecting a large school, often understaffed and underfunded, to protect our children has become an outdated fantasy.
Adults — both teachers and parents — rarely see bullying occur, but other children almost always witness bullying behaviors of another peer. Bystanders are present 85 percent of the time when someone is being bullied (Craig and Pepler, 1997). This means that 1) children are rarely able to find the appropriate language to alert the authorities, 2) they are distrustful of adults or 3) they are afraid of the bully turning the attention to them. No one enjoys witnessing another person being bullied but it is rare for someone to stand up to the bully in defense of another.
I am convinced that it is nearly impossible for parents to grasp the depth of current on-campus bullying. Bullying is a very specific word that carries wide-reaching implications: legal, social, ethical and possibly criminal. It is often the case that a parent will refer to a conflicted relationship between their child and his peers as “bullying.” Historically, this was an acceptable way to speak about playground arguments or of one’s fierce competitor. The first step in identifying true bullying is to speak accurately about what is happening. Bullying is more than social imbalance or unpopularity — that’s an age-old developmental struggle that may be relieved with individual child empowerment, increased social skills, and parental support. Bullying is different — think in terms of harassment. Harassment indicates the ability to harm or debilitate another person’s emotional, physical or psychological condition. Targets of bullying feel stifled and oppressed — even terrorized, on a daily basis. Repetitive threats and taunts at school may induce a student to experience real physical complaints such as stomachaches, vomiting, headaches, sleep disturbance and weight loss. School avoidance, truancy and isolation may become patterns of coping but they are ineffectual solutions in the long run and only further hurt the victim.
If you suspect that your child is being “bullied,” not to be confused with left out, disliked, or unpopular, and your child is in a school setting, my recommendation is that you take immediate action and not return your child to school until your child’s emotional well-being and physical safety are assessed. If your child has mentioned suicide in any passing way, such as, “I’d rather die,” or “I don’t deserve to live,” you must seek professional counsel (a child will speak more freely to a third-party). Often times, a child that has felt severely depressed or suicidal will experience a dramatic uplifting change in perspective. As a parent, your tendency may be to think, “Things are better!” Please do not be fooled by this common and sudden behavioral shift that frequently occurs prior to a suicide attempt.
Why do children bully? Because they have not acquired the skills to maintain healthy and respectful interactions with peers. They may have good grades or come from “nice” families. Common punitive approaches to diminish bad behavior do not work with this modern day “bully.” Unfortunately, the victim becomes trapped or “emotionally stuck” in the dance, resembling a domestic violence pattern of power and control. To an outsider, it’s mind-boggling why the victim doesn’t get away from the emotionally abusive relationship.
Are there ways to protect your child from becoming a target of another’s predatorial and aggressive behavior? Yes. Some children are simply more susceptible to taunting and rejection than others. There are proactive steps that parents can take to develop and nurture successful social and relational skills. Naturally, children who have been encouraged to trust their instincts and verbally assert their needs, in a direct and meaningful manner, will have more effective coping skills. Research indicates that one bold voice of a bystander, one held breath, even a small peep from a nearby peer — “Hey, that’s mean!” — is usually all it takes to scamper off a bullying incident within seconds.
Christina Neumeyer, M.A., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Carlsbad. Contact her at Carlsbadcounseling@roadrunner.com.