Each human being has a bechira, a choice to make. We all make choices throughout life that come to define who we are.
Using Humor to Trivialize Bullying Behavior
Humor can be the best medicine. Joking lets us manage and reduce our stress in meaningful and effective ways. When we’re faced with a difficult situation, a good laugh reminds us that life goes on. However, I recommend against teaching children and adolescents to use humor when confronted with bullying behavior. Here’s why: Ask yourself when, as an adult, you’ve been faced with an aggressor who was doing any of the above behaviors. Did making light of the situation help? Probably not. That’s because there is nothing funny about being hurt by words or actions. Furthermore, the onus to change or modify the aggressor’s behavior is not on the individual being targeted. Rather, it’s on the individual who is perpetrating negative and hurtful behavior. My recommendation: treat bullying behavior seriously.
Ignore the Bullying Behavior
Ignoring a problem is commonly recommended as a way to deal with bullying behavior. In most bullying situations, ignoring the aggressor is not going to dissuade him or her. Again, I ask you as an adult to think about a time when perhaps you were being harassed in the workplace. Would ignoring it have addressed the problem? My experience of working in corporate and municipal employee assistance programs has repeatedly taught me that ignoring the problem isn’t enough. What works are deterrents, such as the threat of the aggressor’s losing their job if the behavior continues to escalate and does not stop.
“Say Something! Talk Back!”
Many times we tell kids to “man up,” to find the guts to tell the aggressor to stop. I completely understand the instinct to give such advice to children and adolescents. However, in my experience, talking back to aggressors can be risky; it can even make matters worse. Teaching children to communicate in a direct and assertive manner is a worthy lesson. However, children often need to take preliminary steps towards achieving a sense of empowerment before jumping to this final goal.
“Please Stop, You’re Hurting Me”
It is understandable that we, as adults, want children to disclose when they want a behavior and/or action to stop because it is hurtful to them. However, it is counterproductive to disclose feelings of hurt and pain directly to the individual that is perpetrating those behaviors. That’s letting the perpetrator know that their actions are effective, and then they’ll be motivated to continue bullying! However, if a child is going to verbalize, as we’ll discuss below, the key is being short and to the point: “Stop it.”
Referring to a child as a bully runs the risk of labeling that child in negative terms that have broader implications. Specifically, labeling may close our eyes to the child’s positive attributes. For this reason, Stan Davis, a noted authority on bullying prevention, encourages using bullying as an adjective and not as a noun, i.e. “bullying behavior” and not “bully.” My own experience has taught me that if we label a child a “bully,” we are bound to hit a brick wall when dealing with parents and the children themselves. Instead, as I’ll elaborate on below, we should focus on the behaviors that the child or adolescent is choosing to engage in, explain why those choices are wrong and work through what needs to be changed.
“How Would You Feel If Someone Did That To You?”
I used to ask this question to the children and adolescents who were engaging in bullying behavior. I don’t anymore. The reason is that the responses I got did not elicit empathy. Examples include: “It wouldn’t bother me,” and “I’d know that it was just a joke, so it wouldn’t be a big deal.” The ultimate objective is for the aggressor to acknowledge that their actions and choices hurt someone else. Asking them to empathize, to put the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, just gives them a reason to make excuses.
Tell Your Child It’s Not Their Fault
Someone who is put down or negated, repeatedly and over time, is likely to come to the conclusion that something is inherently wrong with them. Being victimized is not the result of how someone looks, acts or dresses, even if their behavior is “out there.” Don’t blame the victim is more than a truism. Bullying is a behavior that the aggressor chooses. It’s a misuse of power that says a lot more about the perpetrator than the target. Bottom line: start by telling your child it’s not their fault.
Consistent and Progressive Use of Consequences
As with adults, children need to know that if they break a rule and engage in a type of action or behavior that is hurtful to another human being, they will certainly face consequences. Severity is not the main deterrent, writes Stan Davis in his book, Schools Where Everyone Belongs. Rather, the key is the “predictability and inevitability” of the consequences. The aggressor must not doubt the punitive measures they’ll face for their actions and behavior.
Write It Out
Asking the aggressor to write answers to the following questions can be useful in helping a child to acknowledge his or her behavior. The questions are simple, yet sometimes hard to answer:
Writing takes time and allows the child to acknowledge their behavior and gain an understanding of what motivated the bullying behavior in the first place. Prompts and guidance from a trusted adult is highly recommended to facilitate the process.
When kids know that someone is watching, or at the very least within sight, they are more likely to think twice before making poor choices and may be deterred. Most bullying behavior occurs in places in which supervision is loose or lax, such as the playground, cafeteria, school bus and restrooms. Beefing up supervision goes a long way toward preventing bullying.
Keep It Short and To The Point
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a strong temptation to teach kids to speak to their aggressor and explain how they feel. However, kids who have actually been in the situation of facing down an aggressive peer tell me that they have a hard time thinking of what to say. Indeed, the mere thought of addressing their aggressor verbally can create a surge of distress. Many kids are frightened to say something and very often, for good reason. My advice: don’t push them on talking back. Nevertheless, if a child is able to verbalize when confronted with an aggressor, I would suggest that the best thing to do is be direct and brief. “Stop it,” and “Cut it out” are succinct and to the point. Per above, trying to elicit empathy from the aggressor usually doesn’t work, and may make matters worse by negatively reinforcing the bullying behavior.
Create the Option To Ask For Help Publicly or Privately
Lots of times I’ve seen kids who want to confide in an adult. But they don’t want everyone else to see, particularly the aggressor they are reporting on. Fear of retaliation is a legitimate concern. Victims, whether kids or adults, need to feel safe. My work with adult employees who experienced harassment, discrimination and/or hostility from a co-worker, supervisor or supervisee taught me that people want to ask for help, but they worry that if the aggressor becomes aware, matters will only get worse. That’s why in my counseling, I designate an uninterrupted time period and a private space to empower children to act on their own behalf, and also on behalf of others who may be being victimized. An anonymous suggestion box is also helpful.
Communicate With School Personnel
I know it is beyond upsetting to see your child being mistreated. Your protective instinct hits hard: you want to go on the attack. That’s why I recommend that the best way to advocate for a victimized child is to remain calm. State your concern. Ask if the behavior that you are describing is one that is acceptable or not acceptable at your child’s school. If the answer is that the behavior is not acceptable, then ask what the school will do to address the bullying behavior that you are bringing to their attention. Also, please bear in mind that educators have many students and they are not all-knowing. Please do not assume that everyone is on the same page, that they share the same information and case history. Build an open dialogue with school personnel and they will work with you to arrive at solutions.
Every child wants to belong. Nothing hurts more than experiencing rejection from a group of peers. Kids will put up with a substantial amount of putdowns and dominating behavior because the desire to be a part of a group with high social status means so much to them. The desired outcome is for children to learn that being in a healthy relationship means being treated as an equal, and being respected and valued for who they are. It’s a tough sell to a kid that wants to fit in. However the message is one that they can use throughout their lives. You can’t force friendships.
Work with your child proactively to identify supportive and caring peer relationships. Those are friendships of two equals. In an unequal relationship, kids feel pressured to accept abuse because they want to fit into a group.
My training in trauma has shown me repeatedly that a significant factor in determining resilience is having a support system. A support system can be just one person. Police, EMT and fire personnel have this, a partner who watches over them and over whom you watch. With children, a partnership of equals results in being self-secure — positive self-image and contentment.
One of the most difficult situations is confronting the parents of children who are suspected of being the aggressor. No one wants to hear that their own child is engaging in bullying behavior.
That’s why, many times, when parents are confronted with information alleging that their kid is engaging in bullying behavior, they can’t hear it. They deny it, and put the blame on someone else. Over the years, I’ve heard numerous such denials from parents after being confronted with the accusation that their child is doing something that is hurtful to another child. They include:
How do we confront the “parental brick wall?” The reality is, if a parent does not want to hear criticism about their child, no one can make them hear it. These parents may be invested in being in denial about their child’s behavior, for any number of reasons. But the biggest roadblock is, no one can prove it. How can we know with all certainty that the child intended to bully; how can we go inside the child’s mind and find out? We cannot, and therefore it is impossible to prove intention.
Therefore, I encourage focusing on the facts. For example, a rule was broken, or a hurtful action or comment was made (even if it was “just a joke”). Facts and accusations must be supported. That means you need to find evidence to support an allegation of bullying. Counselors like me do this by gathering information from witnesses and documenting all incidents of bullying behavior.
What if the child accused of bullying behavior repeatedly denies wrongdoing? Then we must focus on what is undeniable, such as a pattern of behavior that is consistent.
What if the aggressor is a “good kid” overall? No matter, their “clean record” does not excuse the fact that he/she made a bad choice and must face a consequence.
Excuses are in endless supply. In the end, children must learn to take responsibility for their actions — to be honest to others as well as themselves. Otherwise, these children learn how to avert responsibility, minimize their behavior and blame their wrongdoings on someone else. (And they grow into parents who deny the same!)
Children ages 6-12 are in their formative years and much more inclined to change a behavior. Parents, educators and mentors should take advantage of this window of opportunity to prevent bullying behaviors in the child, and to keep it from developing and escalating into adulthood. The Torah teaches us that we are all formed “B’tzelem Elokim,” in the form of G-d. At the same time each human being has a bechira, a choice to make. We all make choices throughout life that come to define who we are. Therefore, behaviors do not have to be set in stone but rather chiseled, shaped and molded into a work of art that lasts a lifetime.
For further help and advice with bullying situations, please contact me.
Any anti-bullying scheme, initiative or policy which fails to mention accountability for the bullies is likely to meet with little, and often no, success. — Tim Field
copyright © 2012 amy burzinski. all rights reserved.