What Is Bullying?

Every child has the right to feel safe at school and bullying destroys that sense of safety. It not only affects children while they are at school, but it often follows them home and invades their computers and cell phones. Bullying frequently places schools at odds with parents and parents in limbo with their children. Due to these factors, along with bullying being a hot topic throughout the media in the last few years, it is important to know exactly what is meant when the term bullying is used. There is not a simple answer, but the gist of it is this: bullying includes a set of behaviors that intentionally cause harm to another person. These behaviors occur because a person feels or is thought to be stronger than the other, and these behaviors are often repeated over time. There is usually some gain for the bully.

Bullying affects the children targeted by the bullying behaviors to parents, teachers, and communities that have to deal with the aftermath that these behaviors have on their community. It is much more than a student issue or a school issue; it is a community and society issue as well. The occurrence of bullying not only hinges upon personal choices by students and parents but also on the overall messages and lessons that a society sends to its young people. It is a systemic problem so a systemic solution is necessary. With all these factors involved in the problem of bullying, it makes sense that the proper response would be to address all of these areas: students, teachers, schools, parents, and communities. The best interventions are ones that involve all of these arenas. It takes cooperation on all levels to not only deal with specific instances of bullying, but also to create an atmosphere that suffocates bullying behavior and decreases it’s occurrence in schools and in the community.

What Can be Done about Bullying?

  1. The first step is to listen to and believe the child who reports being the target of bullying behaviors. The child must also see and know that whoever they choose to tell will take action. That is the primary reason that bullying goes unreported: children too often feel that nothing will be done or that they will not be taken seriously. In fact, although they want to help, school staff and parents alike feel helpless and frustrated when confronted by a bullying situation. They have not been trained or been told what to do. The school’s bullying protocol and procedures are not standardized nor clearly defined. There is no clearly defined chain of command to go to when they reach out for help. To assist the parent and school in being able to take appropriate action, the following must occur. Schools must have specific, step-by-step policies outlining what behaviors are considered bullying and what consequences are to follow if those behaviors occur or continue. School staff, parents and students alike should know who to turn to within the school system when a bullying incident has to be reported. This ensures that the child being targeted feels and sees that action has been taken, but it also allows those who engaged in bullying behaviors to know what to expect. These procedures must be applied uniformly for all students. If not, bully prevention strategies will not be credible.
  2. The next step is to involve bystanders, those who see or know that bullying occurs, and either do nothing or encourage the behavior by witnessing and supporting it. This behavior encourages the bully and further shames and isolates the target. Bystanders can include other students, teachers, adults, and parents. Bystanders can help to incite more intense or frequent bullying or it could curb bullying. Bystanders must understand that bullying is wrong and by watching and not reporting they are part of the problem.
  3. Teamwork is also crucial. Parents, teachers, counselors, and school administrators must all work together to solve this problem. Everyone has a necessary role to play and a responsibility in bully prevention. Everyone has a different perspective on the issue and everyone will have different suggestions about what to do about the problem but the goal is unifying. Schools and parents should work to be collaborative with each other. It is important to understand that schools take time to implement policies and practices, and that parents are often emotionally invested and need assurance that action is taking place to protect their child. As a parent or adult working with a child reporting to have experienced these behaviors, the best thing you can do is to listen and ask the who, when, where, and how questions. Remember, it is not an interrogation and the child may be very emotional. Take time to let the child tell his or her story in his or her own words at a comfortable pace. It is important he or she feels understood and supported more than anything else.

How do parents or concerned adults know when they need to seek help?

The simple answer is this: as soon as the bullying comes to your attention, you should contact the school. The longer it goes unchecked the greater effect it will have on the child and the school population as a whole. This is not a problem that will take care of itself. Find out if your school has a bully prevention program, who to report to, what actions will be taken, and how you can be involved in your child’s safety. You can also seek the help of other mental health providers, such as marriage and family therapists, who are trained to work with families and individuals alike. They can also help interface between schools and parents.

Signs that a Child is Being Bullied

The following are some common signs that a child is being bullied:

  • lowered school performance
  • school avoidance
  • social isolation
  • few or no friends
  • reluctance to engage in activities
  • loss of possessions or destruction of property
  • bruises or other signs of abuse
  • emotionality
  • complaints of physical distress
  • change in appetite
  • change in sleeping patterns

Be sure to pay close attention to any abrupt changes in behaviors or emotionality. These are signs that something is going on with your child and you should ask your child about his or her school experiences. Bullying is a major problem and should not be ignored. Not only does one risk lowered school performance or school avoidance, but also long-term emotional and social damage, as well as self-harming behaviors and suicide. Marriage and family therapists are trained to deal with these issues, as well as assist the family in adjusting to these behaviors, working with the school, and in providing social skills training for either a child who is being bullied or a child who is bullying other children.

Written by Anjali Pinjala, PhD, and Jeremy Pierce, MA.

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