Author of Desperately Seeking Parents
As the deluge of studies on the effects of bullying pours into the mainstream, it becomes increasingly clear that bullying poses a threat to our children’s well-being equal to the swine flu, lice, and any number of health concerns for which schools have strict policies. It is time our public schools act, rather than talk.
A recent study from England suggests that being bullied during childhood doubles a child’s likelihood of developing psychotic symptoms in early adolescence. They discovered that the longer and more severe the bullying, the greater the risk. The authors of the study conclude in the Archives of General Psychiatry that “Reduction of peer victimization and the resulting stress caused to victims could be a worthwhile target for prevention and early intervention efforts for common mental health problems and psychosis.”
As I have previously written, schools cannot hope to stop children from beginning a pattern of bullying. Even the most intentional “civil behavior” classes cannot stop or screen potential bullies and stop them before they start. This focus is admirable, but grossly insufficient.
The focus instead should be on the response to both the bullies and the victims. The primary response to bullying should include adequate justice. Providing justice to the victims communicates empathy, compassionate, and most importantly, a validation of their perception of reality. Without this, victims will begin to question their reality testing and create their own alternative perceptions of reality. This extreme but understandable coping mechanism can indeed grow into future, more insidious symptoms.
Justice is equally important for the bully. It may seem counter-intuitive, but exacting swift, significant punishment is more loving and compassionate to a bullying child than sending him or her to therapy or punishing with a mere “slap on the wrist”. The bully needs to know that society (including the school, law enforcement, and victim) do not and will not tolerate his/her behavior. It is not simply unacceptable, but it is not tolerated.
Swift and significant punishment teaches that child that behavior has significant consequences that will hurt. Choosing not to give bullies this message creates a cognitive template for the child that can be catastrophic: “I can abuse other children and the punishment will be minor” is the message. Spare the rod, spoil the child indeed.
Overall, 46 percent of the children reported having experienced victimization — including either direct bullying or “relational victimization” such as being excluded — at age 8 or 10, while 54 percent weren’t “victimized” at either age.
I understand that some children are punished by peers as a method of peer justice. For example, some kids deserve to be ostracized for grossly inappropriate behavior. Not all conflict between children should be regulated by adults; children need to learn how to navigate through their social conflicts on their own. But when peer justice becomes bullying, the adults need to step in and step in swiftly.