In middle school and high school, 28% of students will experience bullying and nearly 10% will experience cyberbullying in a given year. While bullying in general is more common in middle school than in high school, cyberbullying is a more common form of bullying in high school. In recent years, the prevalence of bullying has declined in the United States, but media coverage and concern among parents about bullying remains at an all time high. And parents should be concerned. Bullying, especially long-term bullying, can have lasting and concerning effects on a child’s mental health and academic success.
We are learning more and more each year about what parents, caregivers, schools, and children can do to prevent bullying.
It is critical to educate ourselves so that we can stop bullying.
What Exactly is Bullying?
Bullying, by definition, is unwanted aggressive behavior that is repetitive and is based on a power imbalanced between the bully and the bullied.
There are lots of different ways bullying can occur. It can be a direct bullying episode, such as a fight, where the bully and the bullied are both present. It can be an indirect bullying episode, when the bully isn’t with the person but attacks them through rumors or social media. Bullying episodes can be physical, verbal, manipulate social relationships, or involve property damage. Often, youth who are bullied report that they are being bullied in more than one way.
It’s important to distinguish between bullying and other types of peer conflict. Bullying is repetitive and is based on some sort of a real or perceived power imbalance. Plenty of other types of non-bullying aggression, property damage and rumor spreading happen too (We all remember middle school, right?). We must remember not all aggressive acts are bullying. (Bullying and aggressive behavior can start much earlier, but good information about prevalence is not available until middle school – when it becomes most rampant. Head over to my article on relational aggression to learn more about rumor spreading and mean kids.)
A single physical fight between two kids is not bullying. But it would be bullying if the fight was accompanied with repetitive verbal, relational, property damage and/or other physical attacks.
A nasty rumor being spread on social media is horribly mean. But we wouldn’t consider it bullying unless it kept happening or was paired with other aggressive acts.
With non-bullying peer conflict, we want to help children and teens resolve their own conflict. This can be done through (a) negotiation, by directly figuring out a way to resolve differences, (b) disengagement, withdrawing from the problem or ignoring it, or (c) coercion, letting the other person have what they want. There is a right time and a place for each of these ways of dealing with conflict.
Your job as a parent or caregiver is to help your child figure out which conflict resolution strategy to use with their friends. Take a moment and acknowledge one fact: sometimes they will listen to you; sometimes they will not. It is okay to let them make mistakes – just keep an open line of communication so you can continue to help them if they need help.
Only if your child cannot resolve the conflict on their own, either because the stakes are too big or it is too complicated, should you involve other parents, teachers, or administration. Most of the time, children and teens can cope with their own conflict with support from a trusted adult. And it is good practice for them to do so because you won’t always be around to help them.
There are times when kids cannot solve their own problems.
Bullying is one of those times.
Who Gets Bullied?
Bullying is most likely to happen to children and teens who are different in some way. There is no single profile of what somebody looks like who will be bullied. Generally, children who are different from others, who are more emotionally vulnerable, who are unpopular, and who don’t have many friends are at the greatest risk for being bullied. Being different doesn’t mean that a child will be bullied; but every child who is bullied is different in some way from their peers.
Who Are Bullies?
Bullies tend to either be well-connected, socially powerful kids or kids who are isolated from peers. Generally, bullies are more aggressive or easily frustrated than others, they often have challenging and stressful lives outside of school, and they tend to be more comfortable with violence, which may explain why they are often friends with other bullies.
How Can We Stop Bullying?
Bullying is a group phenomenon, meaning that it typically involves groups of kids. This fact is why zero-tolerance or expulsion approaches to stop bullying have failed. When one bully is removed, another bully simply steps up into their place.
Because bullying happens with the support of groups, it requires a multi-pronged approach to get rid of it. To the best of our current knowledge, bullying can only be stopped if kids, parents, teachers, and school administration work together.
Let’s start with what kids can do.
Evidence suggests that bystanders standing up to bullies are a powerful tool in stopping the cycle of bullying. If a bystander speaks or acts out against the bully’s behavior, the bullying in the entire classroom is lower. If a bystander speaks or acts out in support of the bully’s behavior, there is higher bullying in the classroom. Teaching children to step in against any meanness or cruelty that they observe is critical to preventing bullying in schools. Standing up against a bully doesn’t have to be an academy award winning speech – it can be as simple as not laughing at what a bully is saying or doing, walking away from a bullying situation with the kid being bullied, or saying, “This is not okay.”
One bystander standing up for what is kind and good and right is helpful. A much more effective strategy is if all kids speak or act out against bullying. And the way to encourage this is by changing how parents and schools talk to children and teens about bullying.
Parents and caregivers can use specific strategies to reduce bullying in their child’s school. First, parents can keep open lines of communication with their children. Honest, clear, frequent, conversation. This is critical so that parents are aware of what is happening at school. It is also important because it allows for parents to step-in if a child gets involved in a situation that is over their head. Second, parents and caregivers can model kindness and respect to all individuals. By teaching kindness to all, parents and caregivers will help their children develop empathy, ultimately make it less likely that their child will be a bully and making it more likely that their child will stand up to a bully. Finally, parents and caregivers can offer complete support in helping a child who is talking about bullying. Bullying is not a problem that kids can solve on their own. Your child needs you.
Involving the entire school community (administrators, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, receptionists, and so on) improves the success of bullying prevention. School faculty need to create a culture of clear communication, empathy, and respect towards all people. Just like how parents need to communicate anti-bullying values and pro-kindness values, school officials must do the same.
A culture against bullying must be created within the school. This is done from the top down (school administration to children to bullies) and from the bottom op (parents to children to bullies). Parents and caregivers need to support both the child and the school administration in their efforts.
There have been several experimental trials over the past few years to determine what programs work for reducing and preventing bullying. So far, only 4 programs are rated as being promising or model programs to prevent bullying (You can find these programs here). In general, the mechanisms that seems to reduce bullying are the multi-pronged approaches I just discussed: kids, parents and caregivers, and schools working together to create a culture that does not support bullying.
The good news about bullying is that we are really starting to understand how to stop it. The challenging thing about stopping bullying is that it takes a village – activating your child and his or her friends to stand up to bullies, gathering your fellow parents and caregivers to talk with and support children, and mobilizing school administrations to work against bullying is a big effort. But the research suggests that this can really pay off.
Start with teaching your child from a young age that bullying is not okay. Build a strong, loving relationship with your child – let them know they can always talk to you. Partner with other parents and your child’s school if you notice bullying emerge. You are a powerful force in preventing bullying in your child’s life.