Your Child: Bully or Victim?by Peter Sheras
What can you say to a son who comes home day after day complaining of being threatened or hit or worse? What if your daughter is clearly the victim of vicious teasing but doesn't even want to talk about it? What should you do when you suspect your child may, in fact, be the bully? Your Child: Bully or Victim? offers hands-on help for parents to stop/i>
What can you say to a son who comes home day after day complaining of being threatened or hit or worse? What if your daughter is clearly the victim of vicious teasing but doesn't even want to talk about it? What should you do when you suspect your child may, in fact, be the bully? Your Child: Bully or Victim? offers hands-on help for parents to stop bullying before it becomes serious, including how to:
- Recognize the many forms abuse can take -- from playground name-calling to chat room cyber-slamming
- Detect whether your child is a victim of bullying and empower him to protect himself
- Combat such common (and dangerous) myths as "Boys will be boys..." and "Just ignore them and they'll go away"
- Help your child know what to do when he witnesses an incident
- Know when it's time to step in and talk to other parents or teachers in order to protect your child -- what to say and how to say it
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Read an Excerpt
THE ROOTS OF AGGRESSION
Eight-year-old Michael, new to the neighborhood, comes home from school each day with a new bruise or rip in his clothes. Ten-year-old Emily frequently goes without lunch because a group of her classmates keep trashing her lunch bag. Twelve-year-old Angela finds her name posted on the Internet in a list of "Fat Slobs of Northside Middle School." Fourteen-year-old Deborah, sexually assaulted at a party her parents don't know she attended, is considering suicide as a way to escape the gossips at school. Sixteen-year-old Henry, sick of the daily taunts of "faggot" from neighborhood kids, has started checking periodically to see whether his dad has locked up the ammo for his gun.
If your child is being bullied at school, in your neighborhood or even at home, you know it is no laughing matter. Your child may be getting off the school bus in tears, writing furiously in a journal or spending weekends alone when other kids are out having fun. He may have experienced nightmares, a drop in grades, or a sudden change from an eager, optimistic student to a depressed, underachieving loner. If so, his experience is by no means unique. Nearly every school-aged child in America has witnessed or experienced, or will soon experience, bullying in some form or another. Every two seconds of every school day, according to the National Education Association, another student is physically attacked in school. A typical schoolchild has a nearly 25 percent chance of being involved in bullying on campus, taunting on the bus, sexual harassment, "flaming" on the Internet, beatings or gang activity. One in every five students will bring a weapon to school at some point. According to a recent survey, even in elementary school, personal harm or attack by others is the students' most frequent and intense worry. It is hardly surprising, then, that the National Education Association reports an estimated 160,000 students missing school every day specifically to avoid being bullied.
THE TROUBLE WITH BULLYING
In recent years, a series of violent incidents have brought the issue of bullying to the center of parents' and educators' attention. In 1999, two teenagers who had suffered years of taunts and insults gunned down thirteen fellow students at Colorado's Columbine High School before taking their own lives. In 2001, a bullied fourteen-year-old student at California's Santana High killed two classmates and injured thirteen. These along with additional recent shootings, suicides and other acts of extreme violence have awakened many parents, educators and other adults to the fact that bullying is not an inevitable rite of passage or a harmless part of growing up.
The response has been galvanizing. Emergency hotlines and support groups have been created for bullying victims and their families. Educators have developed curricula that address issues of cruelty among children, and school administrators have instituted zero-tolerance policies regarding physical, sexual, racial and other forms of abuse. A number of psychologists, myself included, have focused on the issue of youth violence in a therapeutic setting, helping both victims and bullies find new ways to cope with anger, depression and aggressive impulses. Even legislators have responded by introducing laws in some states cracking down on harassment, hazing and violence in schools. Some of these actions have proven quite useful, others less so. What is lacking is a clear, rational understanding of what bullying is, how and why it occurs and which techniques are most effective in stopping it.
As a child in elementary school, I myself was a victim of bullying. My experience sensitized me throughout middle and high school to the plight of my classmates who were being victimized. As an undergraduate I studied psychology and sociology in an effort to understand the mind of preteens and adolescents, and focused in graduate school on adolescent group behaviors and how to change them. For the past twenty-six years, I have worked as a clinical psychologist with teenagers and their families to manage issues relating to victimization, bullying, depression and violence. In 1993, while a faculty member of the University of Virginia, I helped found and direct the Virginia Youth Violence Project. Currently, I coordinate the local school crisis network, advise federal and state government on issues relating to youth and violence and serve on a research team that evaluates anti-bullying programs in school.
What have I learned from my experience working with bullies, victims and their families? I have learned that bullying is not a question of "bad kids versus good kids," but a situation in which both children need help in learning how to channel their emotions and interact successfully with others. I have learned that nearly every child has the potential to become a bully or a victim, given the right circumstances. In fact, they are often the same person, as bullies are frequently victimized by others, and victims can turn to bullying in an attempt to resolve their situation. I have learned that parents can do a great deal to prevent their children from becoming bullies, victims or even passive bystanders but only if they take the time to understand the dynamics of bullying relationships, encourage their children's trust and confidence and intervene in effective ways when necessary.
Finally, I have learned that the key to changing the way children interact is for adults from all parts of their environment parents, teachers, policemen, counselors and other professionals to work together to change the social climate so that bullying is no longer considered an acceptable form of expression. By educating children about the different forms of bullying and its effects, encouraging their participation in setting rules prohibiting bullying and substituting more positive behaviors, and consistently enforcing limits, parents and other adults can have a powerful impact on their children's experience at home, at school and in the community.
Every child should be able to grow up in a world without oppression or bullying, and be taught to channel his aggressive impulses in socially acceptable ways. Only when our children learn to identify and respond appropriately to bullying, when we parents act to ensure our children's right to safety, and when schools and communities support that right as well, will the surge in violence among children in this country begin to abate. In this chapter, I will introduce you to some of the basic concepts relating to human aggression so that you can begin to think about how bullying occurs and consider ways to help your child manage his own and others' aggression in positive, enriching ways.
IS IT HUMAN NATURE?
One of the most frequent comments you are likely to hear about bullying is "Well, that's the way kids are and there's nothing you can do about it." But is this statement actually true? Is bullying really an innate aspect of human nature and a necessary part of growing up? To answer this question, it is first necessary to differentiate between anger, aggression and bullying. Anger is an emotion that every human being feels an emotion that can lead to aggressive impulses. An aggressive impulse the urge to hurt another person can be expressed or channeled in a number of ways. Bullying unprovoked aggressive behavior meant to dominate, hurt or exclude another is one way to channel aggression. More acceptable ways include punching a pillow, writing in a journal or working out for thirty minutes on the basketball court.
It is this confusion among terms that often gives rise to misleading comparisons between bullying in humans and aggressive behavior in other closely related primate species. It is true that a large number of monkeys and apes use repeated, unprovoked attacks on others to reinforce their social rank, unify the group by identifying a common enemy and release frustration. The victims in these relationships resemble human scapegoats at first glance in that they are low-ranking members of the group, routinely picked on in times of stress. The difference, however, lies in human beings' ability to vary their behaviors in creative ways. When your child feels stressed, angry or frustrated, he can be taught to find positive solutions for his discomfort rather than automatically picking on a weaker companion. The weaker companion can learn to escape victimization by avoiding the aggressor, can deflect his aggressor's anger through assertive statements or humor or can turn to his peers or to adults for support. While apes are locked into their behaviors by a million years of evolution, humans involved in conflict can look for and practice new responses.
Other evidence that is commonly used to "prove" that bullying is inevitable is the fact that children, left to themselves, behave in decidedly aggressive and bullying ways. Toddlers routinely grab toys from other children, bite and push when they are angry and refuse to take turns. Kindergartners and elementary school children often enjoy excluding others from their groups ("No boys allowed!"). Preteens and adolescents can become masters at spreading malicious gossip, ganging up on young children and sexually harassing or labeling vulnerable peers. Much of this behavior has its roots in normal childhood development. Toddlers generally can't comprehend others' needs, desires or points of view. Kindergartners who exclude others are expressing their expanding social awareness and their fascination with figuring out who they are (girls, for example, as opposed to boys). Adolescents who gang up on others are exploring similar social issues on a more sophisticated level, and those who engage in sexual bullying are often responding to a surge in hormones.
While it is true that all of these behaviors spring from normal human development and that many animal species exhibit similar types of social jostling as they grow human beings are, again, capable of rechanneling these aggressive urges in more positive ways. Toddlers can be trained (over time) to use words instead of striking out, and kindergartners can learn tactful ways to limit the members of their group. Teenagers can establish and maintain social status through kindness and positive achievement instead of bullying and can find harmless ways to attract the opposite sex. The tendency toward physical, emotional or social bullying may be "natural" in some very limited sense, in other words, but it is not inevitable in our schools, neighborhoods and homes. In this book, I will demonstrate a number of techniques for helping your child to manage his and others' aggression and to intervene positively when necessary.
THE DYNAMICS OF ABUSE
As you try to understand and deal with your child's aggressive acts or victimization, you may find it hard to tell the difference between actual cases of bullying and everyday teasing or social jostling. You may wonder whether the aggressor is wholly at fault or the victim is contributing to the abuse in some way. I will address these issues at length in later chapters, but for now you may find it useful to consider how bullying is defined by psychologist Dan Olweus, one of the preeminent researchers in the field: a child is being bullied "when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students." Negative actions are any physical, verbal or social action in which the bully intentionally causes injury or discomfort. In most cases, the bully is aware that the actions are painful or unpleasant.
When you are considering a situation in which your own child is involved, then, it helps to ask yourself the following:
* whether the incident has happened repeatedly (all children make mistakes, but bullies repeat their attacks even after the victim protests).
* whether the bully is aware that she is causing pain.
* whether the victim has made it clear that she resents the behavior.
* whether the act is playful and friendly or of a degrading or offensive nature.
* whether there is a real or perceived imbalance in strength, power or numbers between the victim and the other child or children. A bully always chooses a weaker opponent. A struggle between two equals is not bullying.
If you have answered yes to most or all of these questions, then your child is probably involved in a bullying relationship. This realization can be extremely distressing, especially if you were involved in bullying episodes when you yourself were a child. If you worry that your child is a "born bully" or a "born victim," however, it may come as a relief to know that there is no such thing. Even if your child is larger or more active than others, she can be taught to channel her energy in other ways and to accommodate others' smaller size. While your shy child or one with a behavior disorder may be at greater risk of being bullied, she can learn to compensate for these disadvantages and develop other strengths.
In fact, the reason why your child may be chosen as a victim depends to a large degree on her perceived strength in relation to the bully. You may assume, as did most of the schoolchildren in a recent survey, that an unusual appearance or shabby clothes will cause a student to be victimized. Research has demonstrated that this is not the case if the child's wit, friendliness, self-confidence or other social strengths compensate for her unusual looks. By the same token, a strong, good-looking boy may be victimized if his low self-esteem or poor social skills render him vulnerable. A child's "social intelligence" and level of self-esteem are the real determinants when it comes to whether or not she will be victimized.
WHAT YOU THINK YOU KNOW
Bullying situations are complex and painful and can be difficult to resolve. Parents can hardly be blamed for wishing they would just disappear. Perhaps that is the reason for the proliferation of incorrect "facts" about what causes bullying and how it should be addressed truisms that prevent parents from taking any action at all. Many adults believe, for example, that it's best to let kids work out bullying problems on their own, without adult interference. Others assume that all it takes to discourage a bully is to hit back once or to ignore him until he goes away. You yourself may believe that if your child were being bullied he would tell you, or that if he were hurting others you would know.
Such assumptions when you think you know more about a bullying relationship than you do can have tragic consequences when they prevent parents from taking action. Research has shown that bullies whose behavior is not corrected during childhood often become criminals as adults, and that victims who fail to find relief frequently experience depression and severe drops in self-esteem that can negatively impact their later years.
For your child's sake, take some time as you read this book to think in greater depth about all the forms that bullying takes, how bullies choose their victims (and what makes them stop) and how you might be able to learn whether your child is involved in physical, emotional or sexual abuse. By looking beyond your preconceptions to your child's actual experience and emotions, you can begin to see how to effectively help your child and perhaps other children as well. Whether your child is hurting others, is a victim of aggression or is just a concerned bystander, your clearer understanding will enable you to help him stop the bullying before it gets worse.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
In the chapters that follow, I will share with you accounts of many of the bullying situations I have come across in my professional practice, my research and my own experience as a child and as a parent. Some of these descriptions may strike a familiar note. Others may shock or surprise you. In each case I will provide you with coping techniques that have helped many of my clients in similar predicaments techniques aimed at managing one's own and others' anger at home and elsewhere, at improving communication among family members and with peers and at accomplishing real change at school and in the community. No matter how shy or frightened your child is now or how angry and abusive to her peers there is much you can do to help her manage her emotions without limiting her independence or impeding her growth. I will help you through this process step by step by focusing on:
How to recognize bullying and understand how it happens so that you can protect your child when she needs it. A number of myths about bullying surround us, misleading us as to what causes bullying behavior; what type of child typically bullies or is bullied; whether, when and to what extent such behavior is acceptable and how to best correct it. In Chapter 2, I will examine such myths as "bullying toughens you up" and "victims are wimps," and point out the ways in which they can blind parents to the pain their children are experiencing. In Chapter 3, I will focus on the different forms that bullying can take, the social dynamics that typically lead to bullying and victimlike behavior, and the places where bullying most commonly occurs.
How to talk with and listen to your child in ways that will enable you to help her through a bullying situation in the most appropriate way. Most children don't easily admit to their parents that they're bullying or being bullied. In Chapters 4 and 5, I will provide you with a list of behaviors that may signal that your child is in trouble and suggest ways to talk with her about it. In Chapter 6, I will focus on how your child can intervene in bullying situations she witnesses without being bullied herself and how you can help her to develop the courage and confidence to do so.
How to deal with a bullying situation once you know it is occurring. In Chapter 7, I will focus on ways you can empower your child to handle aggressive behavior herself. While it is important not to abandon your child to "work it out on her own," you can teach her coping mechanisms that will help her to better manage her own anger and respond productively to others'. In Chapter 8, I will discuss when, why and how you should intervene personally in a bullying situation, and examine the best way to approach a bullying child or her parents. Since so much bullying takes place at school, I will focus in Chapter 9 on specific ways to successfully intervene in situations on campus, on the bus and on the daily route to and from campus. In Chapter 10, I will explore legal, therapeutic and community remedies to bullying and victimization wherever it occurs.
How to expand on lessons in managing aggression throughout childhood and adolescence. Bullying may not be a social inevitability, but it pervades nearly every aspect of our culture. In Chapter 11, I will explore ways in which the lessons learned in combating aggression during childhood or adolescence can improve your son's or daughter's life (and perhaps yours) throughout the decades to come.
No one who was involved in taunting, beating, ostracism or other acts of cruelty during childhood ever forgets how painful it can be. Even now, as an adult, you may continue to dream of getting revenge or apologizing for those past pains. You may even be struggling with the same patterns of behavior in your current life. If so, you understand more than other parents how urgently any child entangled in an abusive situation, whether bully or victim, needs help. Ultimately, in this book, I hope to offer a glimpse of the complex web of problems, concerns, fears and conflicts that children and adolescents face, as well as the frequently unsteady support systems that characterize their world. Together, we will explore how and why we need to make the effort to understand these issues, help our children express their feelings about them and then act constructively to protect the well-being of our families.
Copyright © 2002 by Peter Sheras, Ph.D., and Skylight Press
Meet the Author
Peter Sheras, Ph.D., ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Curry Programs in Clinical and School Psychology at the University of Virginia. He is associate director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the university and director of the local School Crisis Network. As an expert in school intervention and youth violence, he develops and evaluates intervention programs for schools, parents, and communities. He has been in private practice for twenty-five years.
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