Early Education     K-12    

Child Behavior: Learn the warning signs of bullying

Mount Saint Mary College professor Paul Schwartz offers tips on what parents can do to prevent or stop bullying

In most adolescent movies bullying is often portrayed as somewhat benign or even comical for both the bully and the victim. Most bullies are big, goofy, “clueless” guys picking on the new kid or the “nerdy” kid, and by film’s end they either become good friends, the bully gets embarrassed in front of the student body, or the victim gets revenge – but not too violently. The victim also gets the beautiful, unapproachable but compassionate cheerleader who was the victim’s only friend.

While these movies may be fun to watch, they are far from reality. Bullying is a repeated and often systematic negative act committed by one child or a group of children against another. Most children can easily absorb one instance of excessive teasing or bullying, but it is the relentless nature of most bullying that makes it so potentially dangerous.

Bullying can take form as physical violence, verbal assaults, taunting, name calling or teasing, or the newest form – cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying might be sending mean-spirited text messages or e-mails, posting nasty pictures of someone or spreading rumors on blogs or websites. Bullies may also extort or steal money, destroy property or elicit someone else to bully the victim.

Bullying can also be indirect – like trying to manipulate friend-ships or systematically excluding a child or adolescent from an activity or a group. Although bullying takes many forms, there is always one common factor in the bully/victim dynamic: an imbalance of power. Children and adolescents who are bigger, stronger and more aggressive usually pick on children who are smaller and weaker.

These “victims” are often shy or lacking friends or other means of social support; they are not assertive or retaliatory in any manner. Often victims of bullies are the new kids in school, the underclassmen, cultural minorities and children who are ‘different’.

READ MORE: What parents need to know about cyberbullying

Why some children become bullies
Most “physical” bullies are male. Girls are less inclined to use physical or direct means to bully other girls; they often use more subtle or indirect means, like manipulation of cliques or group membership, social ostracism or gossiping. This ostracism can be more devastating emotionally than the more direct physical or extortion tactics that males use. Girls are also more involved in the growing area of cyberbullying.

Bullies are frequently impulsive and show little empathy, even enjoying the pain inflicted upon
his victims. There is research indicating that bullies behave in the way they do due to feelings of insecurity or poor self-esteem. By humiliating and terrorizing others the bully can demonstrate personal adequacy and elevate his status with his peer group; he achieves an identity he might not be able to attain elsewhere.

Although bullies come from all family environments, they more often come from homes where little attention is paid to them, parental discipline is usually harsh, and there is poor supervision of him in school activities. Many times the bully is only acting out what he sees and experiences at home. There is a significant relationship between violence between parents or their children and aggressive behavior in childhood.

What can parents do?
If you are aware of bullying by your child or victimization of your child, it is important to intervene – as a parent, do not take the stance that this will go away if ignored. For many childhood bullies, their behavior may be part of a more general antisocial pattern, putting them more at risk for later criminal behavior.

Bullied children may develop social phobia and may want to avoid going to school or riding the bus. Victims suffer a significant loss of self-esteem, they feel loneliness and isolation, and lose interest in school. Some adolescents who are bullied drop out of school as a means of avoiding the pain and humiliation caused by bullying. Others become so fearful and depressed that they attempt or commit suicide. Long-term studies of victims show that the “victim” role stays with them throughout adult life, at work and even in relationship. They are more prone to depression and low self-esteem as adults.

READ MORE: What parents need to know about dealing with bullies

Signs that your child is being bullied
Many victims of bullying are ashamed, embarrassed or too frightened to tell an adult that they are being bullied, so it is important for parents to be aware of the most common signs of a child being bullied. They are:
School avoidance – Child develops “I’ve got a stomach ache” syndrome. School phobia, truancies or complaints of vague somatic in order to stay home are common.
Depression – Child experiences changes in sleeping, eating or social activity.
Losing weight or being hungrier than usual after school – Some children, whose lunch or lunch money is extorted, don’t eat, and are too embarrassed to report the event to parents or school personnel.
“Lost” items – Items may be taken from the child or paid as a bribe to stop some form of punishment.
Lack of communication – The child might be quick to answer “nothing” when questioned about what’s wrong.

Intervening as a parent of a bullied child can be a challenging task. While you want to convey empathy and support for your child, you also want to let him know you have confidence in his ability to handle the situation. A parent can’t simply rush in and rescue the child, without considering peer reactions and how direct intervention from a parent can often make matters worse for the child being bullied.

Evaluate at-home behaviors

Certain interpersonal behavior taught by parents might also need to be reevaluated. We often tell our children not to “tattle”. However, in this situation both children need external intervention to work it out. This is especially true when one child is too frightened or embarrassed to let the situation be known.

Parents also have to rethink telling a child to hit back or retaliate as an effective strategy. Many schools have a zero-tolerance policy for any type of fighting, and this may result in punishment or suspension for your child even though he had a reason to fight.

It’s important for a parent to help a child feel that he is in control of how to handle the situation. Try not to negate the child’s contribution by dismissing his analysis of the situation or suggestions for resolution. Try to help the child explore all possible solutions, stressing the importance of involving the child’s teacher, other school personnel and possibly the bully’s parents. Help the child to evaluate the pros and cons of all approaches that ends the bullying.

Above all, help the child choose a solution, and if possible choose the one that maximizes the child’s role – for example, being assertive but not aggressive – and a solution that minimizes your direct involvement. This type of problem solving will increase your child’s confidence and decrease the chances that your child will become a continuous target of bullying. If you're unsure of how to handle the situation, there are helpful websites and organizations that can offer tips.

No matter which strategy is selected, awareness and involvement of all parties – including the child being bullied, the bully, the parents of both children, and the school – must be incorporated. It is critical that something be done to interrupt the cycle of violence or abuse befalling some children who experience years of schooling in a state of fear and anxiety. As adults we are fully aware how dangerous and frightening a place the world can be; children, however, need to be made to feel safe.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.

Other articles by Paul Schwartz