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Stealing Their Thunder: Understanding and Recognizing Bullying

October 24, 2013
Children and Teens / Mental Health
“Staff Tips and Strategies” and a drawing of a family in green

Andrew McGahan, LCSW, LICSW, Clinical Director

On the 1950s “Leave It to Beaver” TV show, a bully was a boy who beat up another boy as a show of power. Today boys and girls are drawn into bullying, often using much more subtle emotional manipulations. In addition, cyber bullying is an increasingly popular way for bullies to intensify their impact by spreading humiliation quickly and widely through technology. In this uneasy environment, knowing how to recognize bullying and what to do about it in your school, synagogue or community has become an important parenting skill.

Bullying is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as intentional, repeated acts reflecting an imbalance of power and perpetrated by one or more children against another. Bullying may be physical, verbal, sexual or even emotional in the form of rejection or manipulation of friendships. On the internet, bullies shame others before thousands of people through words and pictures on social networking sites, text messages or cell phones.

Bullying behaviors typically begin when children are in fourth grade (with some cases being identified at even earlier ages) and peak during middle and early high school years when social development and peer relationships become priorities for children as they begin seeking their place in the social scene. At this age, children are also strongly influenced by popular culture including television, internet based shows, music, movies, “apps” and social media based platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube and Facebook. These and other cultural influences can make disrespecting others appear acceptable, popular and even humorous. Children may interpret this behavior as a model or “the typical” way to act.

As a parent, it may help to be aware of some of the typical characteristics of bullies and their targets. Children who are targeted are often anxious, depressed or struggle with managing the social skills needed to negotiate conflicts with their peers. Bullies often show unrealistically inflated self-images, feel justified in their hurtful actions and often have a small group of admiring peers. Lacking empathy for others, they don’t resist their impulses to take advantage. A third group of children — witnesses to bullying — may feel empathy but still don’t take action against bullying. Unwittingly, these children can contribute to an environment that allows bullying to continue.

Signs that your child may be a target of bullies include:

  • Loss of interest in school, or suddenly doing poorly in school
  • Change in attitude, along with irritability or negativity
  • Fear of traveling to school by bus or on foot, or fear of joining group activities
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Torn, missing or damaged books, clothing or other belongings
  • Unexplained bruises, cuts or scratches
  • Anxious behaviors around technology
  • Avoidance of the use of technology

Preventing Bullying

Bullying can be prevented with the right interventions and supports from parents, teachers and school administrators, all working with students to jointly build an environment of respect, vigilance and community.

As a parent, you can support your child and school community by taking these actions:

  • Pay close attention to clues indicating any changes in your child’s physical or emotional condition.
  • Talk with your children. Let them know you do not condone bullying. If your child is being targeted, explain that it is not his or her fault.
  • Encourage and help children to report bullying they experience or witness to a trusted adult.
  • Discuss values with your children, paying special attention to the importance of empathy.
  • Monitor who your child spends time with and what activities he/she pursue.
  • Be sure your school has a policy for preventing and responding to bullying, including clear disciplinary measures. Support the policy and help make it as effective as you can.
  • If the school tells you your child is either a bully or a target, listen carefully. Work with the school to find ways to resolve the problem.