bullying

To Tell or Not to Tell: It Shouldn’t Be a Question


by Dr. Dathan Paterno

One of the factors that determine whether bullying will increase in intensity and frequency is the degree of involvement peers have in the process. Peers can intervene directly by stopping bullying as it occurs, ostracizing the bully, supporting the victim directly, or by telling adult authorities about the bullying. As many of you know, peers tend to stay out of the process altogether, which further reinforces the bully’s behavior. Essentially, their lack of involvement sanctions the bully and says that it is OK on their end.

This must stop. Peers must take some responsibility for their neighbors. Remember the golden rule? In case you missed that Sunday School, it goes like this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is not a mere suggestion; it is a command. It is a child’s social and moral obligation to stand up to bullies and to stand up for the victim.

Now, I understand that children will be equipped differently to respond to bullying. Stronger, bigger children will be able to intervene directly. The more savvy and trusted children can tell teachers, principals, school social workers, and parents about the bullying. Some can take the victim aside—at any time, not just after an incident of bullying—and offer that child all kinds of emotional support. Some of the more creative children could start a campaign against bullying, by having peers sign a petition, such as “End Ritual Child Abuse! STOP Bullying!” or “Bullies Are NOT Cool! They Are Weak!” Any and all of these can help both curb bullying behavior and, just importantly, support the victims of bullying.

In my work with children, I hear countless stories of children who are afraid to tell teachers and other adults about being bullied and abused. It is incredibly shameful to admit, partly because it is an admission of weakness and an inability to handle the situation on their own. However, there is an additional reason why many children avoid telling adults.

Some schools frown on “tattling”. Wisely and with good intent, many schools take pains to differentiate between tattling and telling. Tattling, they reason, is reporting nitpicky things to adults, like minor squabbling, faces, minor name-calling, bragging, etc. Telling, on the other hand, is reporting serious problems like violence and other dangerous situations. It all makes sense on the surface. One problem is that victims of bullying tend to err on the side of avoiding because they don’t want to be “tattlers”. Who wants to be nicknamed “The Tattler”?

Another problem, as I have previously discussed, is that children do not want to stir up even more trouble for themselves. Children possess enough intuition to know that schools generally do not use their power enough to make a bully stop; they know that the bully will get a minor consequence, then be right back at the bullying. And this time, with more steam. Not only does the bully continue, but he/she has a justifiable reason to seek vengeance—“You got me in trouble! Now I’m going to make you pay!”

If schools want children to report bullying, then they will have to learn to respond with gusto. Until then, expect most children to hide their abuse from the adults who are entrusted to protect them and teach them life lessons.

Stopping Bullying Must Be a Team Effort

I’m heartened to see bullying front and center in the media these days. Oprah dedicated a show this week to the problem, interviewing several families whose children had committed suicide as a result of intense, chronic bullying. She also had an expert focus attention on what children need to do when bullied. This was a good start. I agree that children share in the responsibility of dealing with bullies. Schools and parents have not done enough to help those children to stand up to bullies with assertiveness. However, the experts said nothing about what schools must do in response to the bullies.

Imagine if you went to the park with your children and a large, aggressive man came up to you and started calling you vicious names, threatening to hurt or kill you, and even shoving you or worse. Would you simply rely on your “assertiveness training” to deal with him? What would you do if the man continued to do this whenever you were at the park?

You would call the police. That’s what a sane person would do! Why? Because threatening, harassing, and assaulting another person is a crime and you would likely recognize that the man would be arrested. This is what adults do; they get proper authorities involved. After all, they are there to serve and protect.

Why do we not afford our children the same protection and model the same kind of response? Parents must do this for their children whenever bullying becomes violent. If your school seems unwilling to do their part—and even if they do their part—I say get the law involved.

Victims also share some responsibility when it comes to being bullied. First, the child must report the bullying, whether it is physical, emotional, sexual, social, or cyber-bullying. Parents can’t help if they don’t know what is going on.

Second, the child must be willing to take responsibility for any behavior he or she is doing that creates or exacerbates the ire of his peers. While bullying is never acceptable and should never be tolerated, sometimes children do things that, well, are asking for it. The child must take steps to remove this factor from the equation.

Third, the child must learn appropriate, assertive responses to bullies. Ignoring mildly annoying behaviors is one thing; kids can’t be so thin-skinned that everything is perceived as a heinous crime. But ignoring bullying is never the right move. Learning how to stand up to a bully—physically and verbally—and say “No more!” is essential.

Let’s get back to the first responsibility of the child: reporting. This is extremely difficult for children to do, because they are often intensely ashamed of the bullying and are afraid of the repercussions of “tattling”. Many children I know who have been bullied tell me that they know the school will not do anything significant to the bully, so they choose to stay quiet. They believe that the only effect of telling will be that the bully will mock the child even more or seek vengeance for whatever punishment followed. The most important factor, which I have written about before, is the response of the adults. If a child reports bullying early in the bullying sequence, the school MUST take it seriously and respond swiftly and weightily.

Wrist-slaps will serve only to convince the child that he will not be protected. This invalidates the school as an authority and forces the child to remain silent. I hope I need not convince anyone how tragic this is.
Schools must respond swiftly with resolve and with serious consequences. They must not only punish the child, but they must communicate the gravity of the situation with the bully’s parents. They, in turn, must be held accountable for their child’s behavior. Again, parents of bullies cannot intervene if they are unaware of their child’s behavior.

Finally, other students have a smaller but significant responsibility to the victim and the bully. They must be able to report bullying with sufficient confidence, to assure that no vengeance will be sought on them.
Let’s start building teams that can effectively fight bullying and create civil, loving, just, and moral subcultures in our schools.

Bullying Can Drive a Kid Nuts!

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.