Psych Services: No question that direct, face-to-face bullying is still in style

Lisa Garmezy

Bullying can devastate children. Consider Vice President Joe Biden’s blunt words: “They made fun of me because I stuttered, and it hurt.” In the end, the “losers” made him stronger. The Veep’s video contribution to the online “It Gets Better” project supporting LGBT youth makes it clear that bullying was a significant experience in his life.

Underestimating the impact of bullying on a child is often the first mistake parents make.

Kids who go through this frequently become nervous and anxious. They may have low self-esteem, become depressed or miss school. Many become victims in the worst sense of the word—miserable, defeated, trying to avoid their tormentors any way they can.

You know children can be cruel. Sometimes they attack each other indirectly by humiliating other students or spreading rumors about them.

Direct, face-to-face bullying has never gone out of style. What’s actually taking place can include threats, assaults and destruction of property—things we never expect adults to put up with.

Cyberbullying may be particularly harmful because

— Once you post it, it’s practically permanent.

— So many people can see it so rapidly.

— It happens 24-7 and reaches the kid at home; there’s no safe zone.

— It’s anonymous and hard to trace; so perpetrators get especially vicious.

— And while physical bullying peaks in middle school, cyberbullying doesn’t stop.

How to Help

 The children in our office get a mixed bag of advice, from “fight back” to “gut up and ignore it.” What’s the best approach?

Dr. Lauren Goonan, director of Psychological Services for the Houston Independent School District, recommends that parents “discuss and practice safe, constructive ways the child can respond to the bully, such as saying, ‘leave me alone,’ or ‘back off!’ ” Brainstorm with your child to come up with wording he or she can use.

In short, kids have to learn how to stand up for themselves without becoming too aggressive. Bullied children can turn into bullies, and revenge is tempting. Professional help may be needed.

“Watch for warning signs,” Dr. Goonan says, “such as moodiness, withdrawal, and not wanting to go to school.” Avoiding old friends is another indicator of a problem. So are bruises. Document what happens in case school officials or police need to get involved.

Children are more harmed by the experience if they come to believe that something fundamental in themselves is causing the peer rejection—such as their sexual orientation. Parents need to reassure children of their worth and try to help them build friendships.

Do not expect your child to ignore bullying. They can’t pull off “you’re not getting to me,” because they are bothered, they do care, and they lack sufficient control over their body language and facial expression to hide that they are intimidated.

A National Association of School Psychologists brochure notes that, “Victims signal to others that they are insecure, primarily passive and will not retaliate if they are attacked.” The “ignore it” strategy may heighten the perception of a child as passive—making things worse, not better.

Silent and Stuck

Telling a trusted adult can help a child in a bad situation. Still, most victims don’t want school personnel to know. They fear retaliation if the bully gets in trouble, or being labelled a snitch. They also don’t think adults are much help. These are realistic concerns.

Overworked school personnel may be oblivious to what’s happening. New research suggests that some school bullies are successful kids looked up to by their peers—not stereotypical thugs—who fly under adult radar.

When educators do notice the behavior they often tell the kid to get over it or attempt to mediate between the perpetrator and the injured party. That doesn’t work either.

Keeping Watch

Bullying is at its worst in unstructured and poorly supervised moments, such as passing periods, recess, lunch time and bus rides home. Check in with the school about stepping up monitoring during these times. Sometimes it’s wise to pair a child with another student on a task, or change a child’s schedule to address a problem. It’s usually the isolated child that is picked on, so simply sticking close to someone else can improve the situation.

Schools and parents together would be wise to teach a variant of “If you see something, say something.” Don’t let your child be part of the appreciate audience for a middle school tyrant. They need to report the problem, or intervene.

Dr. Goonan values the eyes and ears of police officers on her campuses. Your mere presence is often enough to deter bullying, she said. Ultimately, a lasting solution requires collaboration between parents, educators and the community to create “a culture of respect” that makes our schools safe for every child.

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October is National Bullying Prevention Month. To learn more, go to www.stopbullying.gov or www.nctsnet.org and search “bullying.”