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by Janine DeFao
The start of a new school year is an exciting, but also unsettling, time for many children. As they endeavor to adjust to a new school, classroom or teacher, many kids are thrust into new social situations, trying to make new friendships and solidify old ones.
It can also be a prime time for bullies, seeking the “odd man out” to pick on.
“In the first few weeks of school, you need to be hyper-vigilant,” says Deborah Carpenter, author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Bullies. “Kids who tend to bully will look for kids who don’t have a friendship group or the quieter kids with their heads down.
“If the child doesn’t act like a victim, or if the parents come in immediately and the teachers are all over it, that can stop your child from becoming a victim,” she says. “If you find out in January that your child has been a victim for months, it is harder to stop, and a lot of damage has already been done to your child’s self-esteem.”
So how do you know if your child is the target of a bully, and how should you respond?
The chances are higher than you might have guessed.
Experts say as many as 70 percent of children will be a victim of a bully during their school years, and nearly a third of children are victimized each semester, says Nicholas Carlisle, executive director of No Bully, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides anti-bullying training to schools.
The National Youth Violence Prevention Center estimates that 5.7 million children in the United States are involved in bullying each year, either as a victim or perpetrator. As many as 160,000 students skip school every day because they fear bullying, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Every parent remembers the bullies from their own school years, the brutish boys or mean girls who could make another child’s life a living hell.
That kids can be mean hasn’t changed. But two things have: the ease and anonymity of the Internet, which has made cyberbullying take off, and high-profile school shootings and suicides that have made it harder for schools and parents to dismiss bullying simply as an unavoidable rite of passage.
In addition, we’ve learned the long-term effects of school bullying, says Carlisle, who was bullied himself as a youth. “Many people who were bullied in school have significant difficulty with relationships in adult life and suffer from depression and anxiety.”
Bullying can take several forms, but all tend to involve repeated instances, an imbalance of power, the intent to harm and a threat of future harm.
Physical bullying: From tripping and hair-pulling to punching and stealing money, physical bullying is what many parents commonly think of as bullying.
Verbal bullying: Threatening, taunting, name-calling and slurs all fall in this category.
Relational bullying: This type of bullying, which disrupts peer relationships through gossip, rumors and more, is more common among girls. Being publicly embarrassed, ostracized or shunned can be just as hurtful as physical violence.
Cyber bullying: From threatening e-mails and text messages to embarrassing websites and social-networking posts, the Internet has given bullies a slew of new tricks. And experts fear that the anonymity of cyber bullying means more kids are likely to bully online and to be meaner when they do.
While bullying often peaks in middle school, it can start as early as preschool.
Marianne, a Walnut Creek mother of two, says her 9-year-old daughter has been bullied by a neighbor girl, on and off, since they were 4.
Her daughter has been excluded, called names and even pushed to the ground.
“It’s a power trip,” Marianne says. “Knowing she got upset, the bully would continue.”
Marianne was involved enough with her daughter’s life that she eventually became aware of what was going on. Other parents aren’t as lucky. But experts say that no matter your circumstances, talking often with your child about school or spending time there yourself as a volunteer are good ways to get a sense of what’s going on.
If you suspect your child may be the victim of a bully, try asking open-ended questions such as: What was the best thing that happened today? What was the worst?
You can also ask direct questions about bullying, whether it occurs at school and whether your child has witnessed or experienced it.
If your child says she is being bullied, thank her for having the courage to tell you. Be a good listener, tell her it’s not her fault, validate her feelings, and ask her what would help her feel safer.
Never ignore your child’s concerns, tell him to tough it out or fight back or, on your own, talk to the bully’s parents as a first step, which could backfire.
Sometimes, children will ask their parents not to take action, believing they can still resolve the issue themselves.
In that case, “you have to evaluate the extent of the bullying and whether or not your child is safe. Their physical safety is not something you want to mess around with,” says Carpenter.
“In my view, if it gets to the point where a child tells you, they have done everything in their power and haven’t been able to fix it,” she says. If you agree to give your child more time, set a time limit when you’ll step in, she says.
In Marianne’s case, she worked with her daughter on how not to act like a victim.
“My husband and I told her, ‘I know this is hard to deal with, but you’ve got to stand up for yourself and not tolerate it,’” Marianne says. “We reinforce with her to stay with it, address it, tell (the bully) what you don’t like about it, and remove yourself. They want you to get upset. She defused the power.”
“In hindsight,” she adds, “it has come out to be a benefit because she’ll have to deal with bullying in middle school and high school. Now, she’ll stand up for herself and stand up for her friends.”
The latter is crucial because studies show that if a bystander steps in and tries to stop a bullying incident, it’s successful half the time.
Carpenter and Carlisle advocate reporting the bullying to school – and to law enforcement if physical violence is severe – and then working with the school to try to find solutions.
“Parents should feel safe going to schools and asking for their help,” she says.
While more and more schools are taking bullying seriously, and anti-bullying laws are on the rise, schools also report having trouble disciplining students for bullying that occurs off-campus, which is the case with most cyber bullying. One Beverly Hills parent even sued his daughter’s school, successfully, when she was suspended for creating a derogatory online video about another student.
That’s why Carlisle of No Bully advocates schools take a proactive approach to create a bully-free atmosphere in which bullying is viewed as unacceptable and “uncool,” by adults and students alike.
“Bullying is a huge problem in every school,” he says. But “most schools in California do not even have an anti-bullying policy, which I find shocking. When bullying arises, no one knows how to respond.”
Carlisle’s organization, which has worked with more than 50 Bay Area schools over the past eight years, uses peer “solution teams” in which the bully, the bully’s “followers” and “some of the stronger voices in the classroom” are brought together to try to resolve the situation.
This approach works better than draconian “zero-tolerance” policies which punish but fail to address the underlying behaviors, he says.
“The best way to turn around bullying is to ask kids themselves to solve it. That intervention stops bullying 80 percent of the time,” Carlisle says. “If you use punishment in the same situation, odds are you would make the situation worse.”
Carpenter also recommends trying to prevent your child by being bullied in the first place by working with him on social skills including friendship and assertiveness skills, and by discussing bullying early and often.
“Parents need to talk about this issue with their kids constantly, just like drugs, alcohol and sex,” she says. “Start talking when they’re young, and keep talking about it.”
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Unfortunately for parents, children often won’t tell when they’re being bullied, whether they’re embarrassed or fear either retaliation or escalation.
But there are signs parents can watch for, including:
A sudden change in personality, including loss of appetite, unexplained mood swings, uncharacteristic anger, social withdrawal or acting out.
Daily stomachaches or headaches or a refusal to go to school.
A drop in grades or loss of interest in schoolwork.
Frequent requests for more lunch money.
Unexplained scratches or bruises, or torn or soiled clothes.
Certain types of children are also more likely to be targets of bullies.
Sadly, special-needs students can be picked on for their differences, whether physical or social.
But researchers believe any child who is particularly sensitive, lacks social boundaries, has low self-esteem, fails to defend himself or, especially, does not have a peer group is more likely to be bullied. Bullies pick targets that are either passive or easily provoked.
The Everything Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Bullies by Deborah Carpenter. Adams Media, 2009.
The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School – How Parents and Teachers Can Break the Cycle of Violence by Barbara Coloroso. HarperCollins, 2004.
10 Days to a Bully-proof Child by Sherryll Kraizer. Marlowe & Company, 2007.
Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. Crown, 2003.
Actagainstviolence.apa.org: Information from the American Psychological Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children on teaching nonviolent problem-solving to children age 8 and younger.
Cyberbully.org: Information for parents, students and educators from the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.
Eyesonbullying.org: Bully prevention information and resources.
Nobully.com: San Francisco nonprofit provides anti-bullying programs for schools.
Opheliaproject.org: Provides resources for addressing relational bullying.
Stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov: Information for children and adults from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration.
Best Enemies by Kathleen Leverich. Scholastic, 2004.
The Very Bad Bunny by Marilyn Sadler. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1985.
Bad Girls by Cynthia Voigt. Scholastic, 1997.
The Meanest Thing to Say by Bill Cosby. Cartwheel, 1997.
Grades 9 and up:
Dr. Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. Harper Trophy, 2000.
Letters to a Bullied Girl: Messages of Healing and Hope by Olivia Gardner, Emily Buder and Sarah Buder. Harper Paperbacks, 2008.
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