School bullying has probably been around as long as there have been schools. At one time, it was even seen as an unavoidable, maybe even important, fact of life. Bullied kids were told to tough it out as a way to learn to be strong. Bullies were ignored or even encouraged. But the last decade or two has seen a shift in public attitude from denial of the negative impact of bullying to concern. News of suicides of some young victims, murder of at least another, and school shootings perpetrated by those on the receiving end of constant belittlement and humiliation have brought the issue to national attention.
The problem is huge. Depending on the study, 10-30% of students report being victimized by their peers. It starts as early as preschool, peaks in middle school, and continues through the high school years. Research isn’t conclusive about gender differences but it seems that boys are more likely to engage in physical threats and actions while girls are more likely to participate in verbal and cyber-bullying, spreading rumors and excluding their victims from their group. Technology has taken the problem out of the school halls and cafeteria and into the airways for both genders.
School systems are bringing in consultants and providing programs to address the problem. But, as is true of most things, schools can do only so much. Prevention of bullying starts at home.
There are dozens of articles online about how to help your child avoid being victimized and what parents can do if it occurs. There are many other articles about the importance of teaching our children how to be part of the solution by reporting and being active critics of bullies.
But this article is about yet another difficult topic — confronting the fact that any kid (even our kid) can become the bully the other kids fear. Impacts are not limited to the victims. When a kid gains a reputation for being a bully, there are also long-term negative effects for them.
Research shows that bullies can become locked into that role. They may become anxious about losing the power and status that can come from being seen as a threat. Feeling inferior in other more pro-social ways, they resort to developing their ability to devastate others with a word, a post, or nonverbal gestures that assert their ersatz superiority. They surround themselves with other bullies and become less empathic. Terrified of being seen as weak, they increase their efforts to appear strong at the expense of others.
Yes, the probability that your kid will become a bully is small. Only 5-13% of kids studied admit to being on the bullying end of the stick. But that 5-13% of kids who are bullies set in motion a life-long pattern of threatening others in order to shore up their low self-esteem. How can we ensure that our kid doesn’t become one of the perpetrators?
How to prevent your kid from becoming a bully:
Parental modeling matters: Kids do learn what they live. They observe how we respond to public and private bullies. The current culture provides us with numerous opportunities to join in the rhetoric of bullies or to turn away in disgust. It’s almost impossible to watch the news these days without seeing politicians doing their best to show the worst of human behavior. Social media is full of reports of adults bullying others. Let your kids know that such behavior is not acceptable. Call out people who are rude or critical of others when it happens in your presence. Talk with your children about any incidence of bullying that they see on TV news or video games. Talk about the negative effects on both the bully and the bullied. Most important, teach how things could be handled differently.
Monitor other adult authority figures: Sadly, there are teachers, coaches, and youth leaders who seem to think that using sarcasm and put downs is an effective style of leadership. Their victims cower. Other kids jump in to keep the negative focus off themselves. Yes, it sometimes gets results. But kids in the cross hairs of adult bullies are devastated. Often they quit a sport or activity they love to get away from the abuse. Those who tolerate it may learn the subject, sport, or skill sets at hand, but kids who are bullied by their mentors often become depressed or traumatized. They also learn that the way to be a leader and in authority is to be hurtful. Correct, report, or insist on disciplinary action when other adults are just bullies who’ve grown bigger but not grown up.
Give your kids a moral compass: Decent people behave decently. Knowing right from wrong does come naturally, but kids do need us to give them recognition for acting on it. Don’t shy away from giving them direct lessons in morality. Encourage them to do things because it is the right thing to do, not because they will get an immediate reward.
Never, ever, humiliate a kid: Yes, kids do things that are amusing to stupid. But no child ever learned an important lesson by being called names and being put down. Frequent punishment by humiliation has been reported by bullying kids as one of the reasons they bully. Not wanting to be a victim anymore, their immediate response is to become powerful by being a perpetrator instead. Our job as influential adults in their lives is to show them that there is a third alternative; that they can learn to navigate a challenging culture with grace and compassion for others.
Build their positive self esteem: Raise them with love and acceptance. Teach them that feeling good comes from doing good; from being one of the people who contributes in a positive way to their family, friends, and community. That is what is at the foundation of a healthy self-esteem. Kids with a strong positive self-esteem have no need or desire to be a bully.