How to Tell If Your Child Is Bullying Others (And What to Do About It)

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When I was in middle school, I was bullied pretty badly, resulting in depression and even serious considerations of suicide.

I carried a lot of hurt and anger, and I didn’t deal with that in the healthiest of ways. It pains me to reflect upon how I transferred my hurt from bullying by mistreating younger kids and by being terrible to a few of my friends.

I was displacing my hurt onto others so that I didn’t have to carry it alone.

But despite the ways I treated some of my peers, I was never labeled a “bully.” That’s because I didn’t fit the “bully” profile: My grades were good; I had no history of discipline issues; I was well-loved by my teachers. Yet I was acting in much the same way as those kids who were labeled “bullies.”

In today’s schools, we see the same. Some students are identified as “bullies” or “problem students.” Yet when we’re honest, many of us at different times in our lives have been mean to someone in the regular and sustained way that would constitute bullying.

In truth, the label of “bully” is in no way useful when actually attempting to address the problem of bullying.

bullyinggirlssmallTo simply label some people “bullies” and some people “victims” with the rest of us as “bystanders,” we never actually deal with the root of why someone is exhibiting bullying behavior. It’s a cop-out.

Bullying is primarily a problem of power, and as such, it tends to have one of two roots: an internalized feeling of superiority in regard to another group or individual or feelings of insecurity and hurt that lead one to lash out at others.

In either case, bullying has a measurable root that we can address. If we’re concerned that our child is being a “bully,” it’s best to start with the question, “Why?”

And in recognizing the roots of bullying behavior, we open the door to actually understanding the nature of bullying, which helps us to understand when our kids may be mistreating others and how to prevent bullying in general.

How to Identify If Your Child Is Demonstrating Bullying Behavior

In designing a comprehensive bullying prevention and intervention program for parents atCivilSchools, we compiled research that identifies seven patterns that could be indicative of bullying behavior in a young person.

(Please note that no single pattern listed below necessarily means your child is demonstrating bullying behavior. These are just a guide for considering whether you should intervene if you’re concerned.)

Sign 1: A Pattern of Abnormally Angry or Aggressive Behavior

Few children or adolescents are angry or aggressive as a status quo, so if you start to see a lot of aggression or anger, it’s coming from somewhere. Plus, if you’re seeing it, there’s a good chance it’s being directed at others in bullying behavior.

Sign 2: A Pattern of Depressed, Sullen, or Sad Behavior

Notably, this is also one of the signs that a student might be experiencing bullying, but when a student falls into a pattern of depression or sadness (as I did when being bullied in middle school), they might choose to pass that burden along to others through mean behavior or bullying.

Sign 3: Regularly Throws a Fit When They Don’t Get Their Way

Any parent knows that children go through a phase of lashing out when things don’t go their way, but if this is persistent, there’s a good chance that they are lashing out at other children to try to control outcomes. Some students fall into a pattern of intimidating other children into going along with their will.

Sign 4: A Vocalized Prejudice Toward Particular Identities or Groups of People

Bullying is a problem of power. When we understand this, we can be on the lookout for language that serves to assert this power by oppressing or hurting other identities.

For instance, if your child talks disparagingly or makes jokes about, say, “the fat kids” or “the nerds” or whatever it might be, there’s a chance they are taking out this expressed disdain through bullying. It seems obvious, but it’s important to intervene whenever we hear this type of language.

Sign 5: Demonstrates a Clear Lack of Empathy

Empathy is a skill that we learn and must develop and maintain. We should not assume that our ability to express empathy is simply innate.

When students regularly demonstrate an inability to put themselves in others’ shoes and consider the impact of their words or actions, that might be a sign that they’re demonstrating bullying behavior.

Sign 6: A Pattern of Discipline Problems

Let me start by saying that this particular sign is fraught because of how our schools dole out “discipline” in tremendously problematic ways. Certain students (such as Black or Latinx students and LGBTQIA+ youth of Color) are more likely to receive harsh discipline for the same infractions as other students (such as White or Cis- and Straight peers respectively). Thus, this consideration ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

However, if you do notice a history of discipline infractions for more than just, say, disrupting class, this is something to investigate further, as it might be a sign that they are demonstrating bullying behavior.

Sign 7: A Preoccupation with Popularity or Social Status

Bullying is rooted in power imbalance within our communities, and popularity is, at its root, a construction of power. Not all people who are “popular” bully others, but a preoccupation with being popular or with achieving higher social status can lend itself to bullying behavior.

All of this begs the question, though: If I suspect that my kid is bullying others, what should I do?

How to Intervene If Your Child Is Bullying Others

A lot of parents who know or suspect that their student is demonstrating bullying behavior feel helpless. They’ve been told that bullying is an endemic problem that will never be solved, and now their kid has been labeled with that terrifying label of “bully.”

Fortunately, there’s a lot that you can do to stop bullying behavior and help your school community create an environment free of bullying.

1. Explain why this particular behavior is unacceptable.

In this conversation, try to be as specific as possible. If your student is bullying others using sexist or ableist language, or targeting another student for their skin color or sexual identity,take the time to explain precisely why this behavior is not acceptable in your family.

Part of this, then, means that you must…

2. Discuss your values with your child.

Explain to them why your family values inclusiveness and diversity. Ask them to name their own values and how they feel like the behavior in question aligns with their values.

It’s important to stress that one of the most important parts of being human is cultivating a set of values and then striving to live up to those values. It can help to talk to them about some of the ways that you fall short of living into your values, as it can provide a model for them to work to be better.

3. Get to the root of the behavior.

As noted above, most bullying behavior stems from a feeling of superiority toward other students and/or a feeling of hurt and insecurity. By trying to understand why your student is acting this way, you can help them work through the feelings or hurts that are leading to them treating others poorly.

In this conversation, you may realize that they’re being bullied or mistreated in another area of their life or that they’ve really internalized some problematic messages about other groups of people that you will want to work on with them.

4. Avoid relying solely on punitive measures.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t offer some sort of punishment or consequence for their behavior, but if we rely solely on punishing away bullying behavior, we won’t ever solve the problem.

Simply put, because of the development of their pre-frontal cortex, young people tend not to make clear connections between a behavior and the punishment or consequence they will receive. Instead, we need to activate consideration of the values you’ve instilled in them over their lives because it will appeal to the more developed parts of the brain that rely on pattern.

Steps You Must Take

Beyond identifying when our child is bullying others and talking to them, there are some simple, concrete steps that we as parents or guardians must take if we want to play our part in ending bullying behavior in our community.

After all, teachers, administrators, and students can only do so much. They need us as parents to take an active role in building more inclusive school environments.

1. Rely on your community.

As you seek to solve this problem, remember that you are not alone. Lots of parents are struggling with this issue, and there are likely a number of people who want to support you and your child in ensuring more inclusive behavior!

Identify people who you can rely on that your student trusts. Is there a teacher that your child really trusts with whom you have a relationship? Is there an aunt or uncle who connects well with your kid? Are there other, mature kids that your child hangs out with who you can engage?

Identify your allies and engage them in helping your child live up to their values. Have that aunt or uncle or teacher reach out to your students and talk to them as well. Activate those youth allies who can help your young person make good decisions. That old saying “It takes a village to raise a child” definitely applies in preventing bullying behavior.

Additionally, most schools want and need parent allies in ending bullying behavior. Reach out to a teacher or administrator or other staff person that you can trust and let them know that you’re aware of some of your child’s behavior. Let them know that you want to work with them to create an inclusive school environment.

2. Have the courage to self-reflect.

One of the toughest issues to overcoming bullying is when parents aren’t willing to do the tough work of self-reflecting about where the behavior might have been learned.

Let’s face it: We don’t always demonstrate well the kind of behavior we want to see in our kids, and bullying behavior is learned. Thus, one of the hardest but most important things we can do is to ask ourselves what we could do to better demonstrate the struggle to live into our values.

Consider whether your language about other people — or even yourself — demonstrates your values. Have we made some off-handed comments about “those people?” How might talking badly about our own bodies impact how our students talk to kids with different body shapes and sizes than themselves?

If we’re going to call upon our children to reflect on their own behavior, we must also be willing to do the same.

Maybe we will come to the conclusion that we are always demonstrating how we want them to treat their peers. More likely, though, we will find ways that we could do a better job of demonstrating the kind of behavior we want to see in our kids.

And that realization can be a powerful one for our own growth and for that of the children we love so dearly.

***

Something that’s easy to forget is that bullying is entirely preventable. Don’t listen to those who tell you, “Bullying has always been around. There’s nothing we can do! Kids will be kids!”

Bullying ends when we work together in community to address the root causes of bullying behavior, and some of the most central stakeholders in that work are the parents of our communities.

By taking ownership for this problem and by being proactive, we can help to ensure that every single student feels fully supported in who they are and that no student has to endure the pain and self-hate that can come from bullying.

We simply must realize the power we have to make this needed change.

Originally published at Everyday Feminism.

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6 Ways Parents Can Address Bullying

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comforting-467x267Photo Credit: PBS.

If you’re a parent of a school-aged child, it’s likely that you’ve been affected by bullying.

With approximately 30% of students reporting being bullied and far more being peripherally affected or even traumatized by bullying, it’s a weighing concern on parents’ minds.

I often will meet parents when I’m out at a party or on a long flight who, when they hear that I’m a bullying-prevention educator, immediately begin to impart their terrible story of childhood trauma and abuse or stories about their kids being bullied in school.

And while just about every parent cares passionately and deeply about ending bullying, most are unsure of what they can do to protect their child.

That’s one of the reasons that I partnered with Everyday Feminism a few months ago to facilitate a free webinar on how parents can intervene to end bullying.

Knowing that not every parent has an hour to sit down and watch the recording of our webinar, though, I wanted to offer a quick read for parents who are concerned about bullying.

Understanding Modern Bullying

Before parents can effectively intervene when bullying is taking place, it’s important that we understand a few things about the nature of modern bullying.

First, a comprehensive review of the research on bullying from the American Educational Research Association tells us that “bullying is often aimed at specific groups” and is often a direct result of power imbalances.

In short, bullying is primarily a problem of power, not simply random childhood cruelty.

Though not every instance of bullying is directly related to identity, research indicates that it can be important to talk about bullying through the lens of identity.

Second, the nature of bullying has changed tremendously in the last 15 years.

I often have adults say to me, “Man, I was bullied, and I survived! All this coddling isn’t going to help kids toughen up!”

My response is always, “While I’m really sorry that you were bullied, we also need to understand that bullying today isn’t the same thing as bullying when we were young.”

In my own case, I was bullied pretty terribly in my youth.

It got to the point that I felt pretty desperate and even suicidal at times. And this was in a time when I was able to take breaks from the bullying.

You see, when I got home from school, the bullying stopped. And every summer break, I got a two-month reprieve from the bullying behavior. And I barely survived!

Today, with the wide accessibility of cell phones and the Internet, bullying can be near constant.

One of the last things young people with cell phones do before bed and first things they do when waking up is check their phone. If they’re being bullied through Twitter or text, that’s how they will start their day.

The scary thing about cyber bullying is that it never takes a break.

Knowing these two things about bullying will help tremendously as you look for the ways to best support your child and intervene when they are being targeted for bullying.

1.  Look for Signs of Bullying

Though it may seem obvious, many of the signs of bullying go unnoticed or written off as moodiness or growing pains.

But there are concrete things that you can look for that will help you to identify when you child is being bullied.

No matter your child’s age, ask yourself these questions:

Has your child…

 …stopped doing things that they enjoy?

Students who are being bullied tend to express greater self-consciousness, and as a result, they may suddenly stop doing things they enjoy.

Maybe they’re being mistreated at baseball practice, so they no longer want to play baseball. Maybe they’re being bullied for their interest in Magic the Gathering, so they suddenly stop playing the game that they love.

…expressed a sudden or progressive sad or sullen attitude?

Maybe this is a sign of seasonal affectedness, or maybe this is because the teasing has finally broken through your child’s defenses. Once the poison of bullying gets inside, it often will show up through progressive or sudden sadness.

…expressed a sudden or progressive angry attitude?

Similarly, bullying can also lead to sudden outbursts of anger.

This is important to recognize because it can often end up leading to your child“passing on the hurt” by bullying other people.

For me, I was terrible to my parents and best friends when I was being bullied in middle school.

…expressed sudden or progressive self consciousness about their identity?

Because much bullying is identity-based, it can lead to students feeling more self-conscious about the aspect of their identity that is being targeted.

In the case of heterosexist/homophobic bullying, it can lead targeted kids to express self-consciousness and to project their understandings of heterosexuality in extreme ways.

…been reluctant or afraid to attend school or activities?

Maybe they’re just hitting that time of year when nothing can make them want to go to school, or maybe they’re being mistreated in some way. But sudden reluctance to attend school or activities is a good sign that bullying could be taking place.

 If your answer to any of these questions is yes, talk to your child.

The more open and honest you are with them about your concern, the more likely they will be to talk to you about what’s hurting them.

And even if they don’t end up sharing everything with you right then and there, bringing it up helps them understand that they can come to you for help.

2.  Engage Your Child’s Digital World

If your child is not yet online or using a cell phone, it’s only a matter of time. So it’s important to set a precedent early about how you will engage with their digital world.

Sadly, cyber bullying is on the rise and is becoming one of the key tools in bullying behavior.

You have to decide for yourself how involved you feel comfortable being, butbeing involved is without a question vital to intervening if your child is being bullied or demonstrating bullying behavior.

Ask yourself whether you’d feel comfortable knowing your kids’ passwords and until what age? Have you talked to them about web safety? To what degree are your kids trusted with unsupervised use of cell phones or the Internet?

All of these questions are vitally important.

Do you know all of the different social media apps your kids might be using?

One thing that was surprising to me is that I consider myself pretty “in the know”when it comes to the digital world. Yet when I was doing research for the CivilSchools parent workbook and polled high school students about what apps or platforms they’re using, a number came up that I had never heard of!

Young people are fleeing Facebook for Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Ask.fm, Tumblr, Lulu, Whisper, and other platforms.

It’s important, then, to have an open and honest dialogue about what kinds of social media they engage with and how they engage, reminding them that if they or anyone they know is being mistreated, they can talk to you or other trusted adults.

3.  Self Reflect

One of the hardest things for parents to realize is that bullying behavior is learned. Therefore, if you’re concerned about eradicating bullying behavior from your community, you need to start in your own home.

In her fantastic reflection on learned bullying behavior, Rachel from Hands Free Mama astutely realized that the biggest bully in her daughter’s life was herself.

One of the best things we can do to prevent bullying is to think about the ways that we might be teaching bullying behavior to our kids.

Do we talk badly about other people or identities? Do we demonstrate that it’s okay to say terrible things to others (perhaps through our road rage or in how we treat service employees)?

4.  Build a Parenting Network

In the midst of our busy lives, parents are becoming increasingly disconnected from other parents in their children’s school community. Yet parent allies are some of the best people to step in and help when you fear your child is being bullied or demonstrating bullying behavior.

 Does your community have a parent advocacy organization? If not, what would it take to start one and get other parents to join?

Having a parent advocacy network doesn’t require a ton of extra time or meetings on the schedule. Parent listservs or Facebook groups make it easy in our busy schedules to reach out to other parents.

Sometimes a simple message like “I’ve been noticing my child’s been more and more angry lately, and I’m wondering if something’s going on at school” can alert other parents who may be having the same problem, and you can start to get to the bottom of it together.

Plus, if you suspect bullying is taking place, a parenting network might help you reach out to the parents of children you suspect are exhibiting bullying behavior.

There’s a chance those parents will be defensive and you’ll have to go through the school, but if there’s even a small chance that alerting an unaware parent might stop the problem, a parenting network can be the thing that saves the life of a bullied young person.

5. Build a Proactive Relationship with Your School

Sadly, if the first time that your kid’s school hears from you is when you come in furious that they’re doing nothing about the bullying your child is experiencing, they’re far more likely to write you off. I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

If you’re worried about bullying, one of the best things you can do is start building a proactive relationship with the school early.

Identify who your allies are in the building, and reach out to them early offering your help and support. That way, when you reach out for help and support with bullying, you’ve got some people in your corner.

Additionally, teaming up with other parents to both show that you support your school and teachers and to draw attention to bullying behavior is important.

Schools are likely to take you more seriously when they realize bullying is a problem that is affecting more than one family.

Finally, when working with your kids’ school, assume best intentions on the part of teachers and staff, but do not hesitate to get forceful to make your voice heard.Your child has a legal and ethical right to feel safe and included in their school environment.

6. Demand a Comprehensive Approach to Bullying

One of the reasons that I originally designed the CivilSchools program is that research tells us that bullying is preventable, but only when the entire community – parents, teachers, students, administrators, and the wider community – is engaged.

Whether it’s a program like CivilSchools or something else, there needs to be mechanisms to engage the entire community if you truly want to build the kind of community where bullying is no longer present and where all students feel safe.

A recent national study indicates that only half of school employees have received training in how to prevent bullying, and more than half of school staff say they need additional training.

Unfortunately, though, with the laser-like focus on reading strategies and math concepts (which are important – don’t get me wrong), schools don’t often prioritize the time and money it takes to actually involve everyone in bullying prevention until there is some sort of tragedy.

But schools tend to listen to parents.

If a bunch of parents from your parent advocacy network start e-mailing the principal, demanding a comprehensive approach to bullying, it will happen.

Bullying By Any Other Name…

Sadly, the term “bullying” has been used as a catchall recently, thus watering down the term and making it far less effective for describing the actual problem at hand.

But one thing we know is that when you describe specific bullying behaviors to students and ask them to identify the ones that are present in their schools, we know that bullying is a problem that ain’t going away simply because we’ve passed some “zero-tolerance” laws (PS: They don’t work!).

Building bullying-free school culture and climate where every student feels safe and inclusive is hard work that requires parent engagement. The more organized and tenacious you are about demanding a safe and inclusive environment in your school, the more schools will have to listen.

The more we demand social-emotional learning that teaches empathy and the more we equip our community members with tools to actually prevent bullying, the greater a change we will see.

But don’t forget: Bullying is preventable if we engage the entire community in building more inclusive school environments.

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CivilSchools Parent Dialogue – How to Build Empathy in Your Child to Prevent Bullying

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In this discussion, our Director of Education, Jamie Utt, leads a Q & A session with philanthropist, retired professional athlete, and current University of Arizona Assistant basketball coach, Joseph Blair. Joseph is also a father of three, one of whom has struggled with bullying.

Joseph offers up his own wise advice for parents about the necessity of open communication with your children, and Jamie brings in some of the tried and true teachings from our UPstander Intervention Training to support the discussion.

In this CivilSchools Parent Dialogue, Jamie and Joseph will cover:

1.  Reasons that open, honest communication with your child is vital to bullying prevention
2.  How to build empathy in your child through critical conversation and modeling of empathetic behavior
3.  How to teach your child to be an UPstander to prevent bullying

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Ending Bullying: Being an UPstander

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As I’ve watched the whole Dolphins Bullying fiasco unfold, I can’t help but sit in shocked amazement at how many of the Dolphins players and management are in defense of Richie Incognito’s racist and homophobic bullying of Jonathan Martin.

Jonathan Martin and Richie IncognitoI can’t help but wonder how many voices are silent.

How many team members or coaches were disgusted by Incognito’s behavior but didn’t speak out for fear of drawing the ire on themselves or for seeming to go against the grain?

How many people in the organization want to see a more positive culture in the locker room?

How many of them would have stood up if they simply had the tools before it got to the point of Martin walking away from a lucrative contract because of bullying?

It’s Time for Tools

Half of the battle in addressing bullying is getting people to understand the particular nature of modern bullying, particularly in its connection to power, oppression, and identity.

Bullying has changed profoundly in the Internet era. Yet it has simultaneously stayed the same in how it disproportionately targets the most vulnerable identities in our communities.

Prevention starts with this understanding.

But understanding the problem does not necessarily inspire action.

The problem itself can seem too overwhelming, so profoundly entrenched, that we can get stuck in analysis and never act.

What’s encouraging, though, is that when committed stakeholders from every corner of a community commit themselves to acting to build a more inclusive environment, it is, in fact, possible to prevent bullying behavior.

But we have to empower our communities with tools!

So What Constitutes Bullying?

First, in order to offer people tools, we have to be clear about what we mean when we say “bullying.”

Too often, any mean behavior is called “bullying.” Sure, we definitely need to address hurtful language that someone uses, but is it really bullying?

The definition we use for bullying at CivilSchools breaks it down this way: Bullying means targeting another person for regular, sustained violence, harassment, or neglect because of a particular aspect of that person’s identity.

Identity-Based Bullying

There are three key parts to this definition.

The first relates to the behavior being regular and sustained. If someone is made fun of once, that is a bad thing, but it isn’t bullying behavior. Bullying must target someone over time.

The second describes the behavior: violence, harassment, or neglect. Not all bullying is characterized by physical assault or verbal harassment. Sometimes bullying involves a coordinated isolation of another person to make them feel alone.

Lastly, bullying usually isn’t random. It targets another person for a particular aspect of their identity.

Sometimes people are targeted for more surface-level aspects of identity like interests (music or sports, for example). Other times, bullying targets more deeply-held aspects of our identities like our race, gender identity, body image, physical or cognitive ability, or sexual orientation.

Regardless, it’s important to describe bullying as identity-based because it helps us target our interventions at the root of the bullying behavior.

Being an UPstander

UPstander Definition

Once we’re clear what we mean when we say “bullying,” we can begin to imagine interventions that actually have measurable impacts on the problem.

I’m not sure where I first heard the term UPstander. It may have been Facing History and Ourselves, a fantastic resource for teachers that uses the term, or from the National School Climate Center, but the term is perfect.

It transforms the language of “bystander” into a call to action: Stand UP to bullying behavior!

And pairing this language shift with tools for all stakeholders in our communities can profoundly impact whether or not they join others in concerted action toward building inclusive community.

In my research for the UPstander Intervention Training for CivilSchools, one thing became increadibly obvious to me: We have to offer people lots of entry points at which they can start speaking up for positive culture and speaking out against bullying.

Our approach, then, is to break being an UPstander into three vital roles: Social Norming, Interrupting, and First Responding. Each offers a different type of action and level of commitment in being an UPstander.

To truly transform a community into one where bullying is no longer a vexing problem, there need to be people who are filling all three of the roles.

Social Norming

The idea of participating in Social Norming (or being a Social Normer) builds upon social norming sociological theory.

In short, social norms are flexible, changeable, and bullying exists often, or at least in part, because there is a certain level of social approval of bullying behavior.

When there are not enough empowered people standing up for the kind of positive community they want to see, even if a majority or a critical mass doesn’t support the negative stasis of bullying behavior, then bullying unfortunately gets tacit approval.

Thus, one of the most powerful things we can do as individuals is to get organized with others who want to see a different kind of community and work to change the backdrop against which bullying takes place.

Getting organized, though, requires that we have enough people on board – a critical mass – so that it’s not just you making a stink by yourself.

Social norming, then, calls for us to do the difficult work of changing the social norms that tell people that speaking out against bullying is unacceptable or uncool, that tell people that bullying is normal and will always be around, and that tell people there’s nothing they can do to build positive school culture.

Social norming must take place on two levels: passive and active. Passive norming refers to using clever messaging in things like posters or t-shirts to spread your message.

Active norming, on the other hand, describes the behavior you and others can exhibit to shift the tide of what is and is not acceptable, “normal,” within your community, which leads us to the second way to be an UPstander.

Interrupting

Unfortunately, the passive work of social norming is not enough by itself to make our communities more inclusive of all people.

We need a skillset of tools for interrupting bullying behavior when we see it, whether it’s happening in our schools, our locker rooms, our workplaces, or on the Internet.

While it may seem obvious, what makes interrupting difficult is finding a way to stop bullying behavior without making things worse for the person being bullied.

Additionally, it can be important to interrupt the bullying in a way that doesn’t necessarily make the person doing the bullying defensive so that there’s room to address it with them later.

Sometimes that means calling out the behavior while calling the person demonstrating bullying behavior in to live their values, i.e., “Come on, man.  I know you’re better than that! Leave them alone.

Other times interrupting means simply distracting the person who is doing the bullying so that the target gets a respite. “Hey, did you see the Broncos this week? RIDICULOUS!”

Still other times interrupting means directly addressing the person’s hurtful or problematic language and behavior so that those standing by, wishing they could interrupt, are empowered to know that someone can actually stand up.

Unfortunately, there is no simple handbook for interrupting bullying behavior, and each person has to decide what will work best for them and for the particular relationship we have with the person doing the bullying.

But the empathy it takes to see ourselves in a person being targeted for bullying and to act to intervene is central to any bullying prevention initiative, and when we reach a critical mass of people acting to help one another, we will see powerful transformation in our communities.

But interrupting by itself is also not quite enough to prevent future bullying from occurring.

First Responding

AmbulanceThere are few people that I admire more than our first responders: the people who show up first after an accident, that attend to the trauma people have experienced or witnessed, that put their own lives on the line to help those who have been hurt.

We could all learn something from them, but I don’t just mean in a hypothetical sense. Their work can be directly applied to bullying prevention and response.

When I was in middle school, I was bullied quite badly. It got to the point where I was considering suicide (though I didn’t tell anyone). The few friends I had had to bear the brunt of my depression and frustration, as I turned around and bullied them in turn.

I remember this one day in seventh grade when some kids cornered me on the playground and made fun of my smile (I have an enormous smile – all teeth and gums) before jumping into a deluge of homophobic and sexist slurs.

It left me feeling defeated.

Despite a few friends trying to cheer me up, I felt alone (“They’re my friends! Theyhave to say that,” I thought).

Later that day while standing in line for lunch, I realized that I had accidentally been caught staring at the coolest eighth grade girl in school.  Her name was Audrey, and man was she cool: haircut, fashion, friends – she was perfect (in the mind of a seventh grader)!

Well, after catching me staring, Audrey came over to me and told me she had seen me being made fun of that morning.

“Great,” I thought. “She missed her chance earlier, and she wants to get in on it now.”

“You shouldn’t listen to them,” she said. “You have the most beautiful smile in the world. Forget about them.”

Then she walked away.

That was the one and only conversation I had with her, but it sure did it have an impact.

A complete stranger, one who I knew didn’t have to risk her social status by doing so, reaffirmed me, reminded me that I am okay, that I shouldn’t let the poison of the bullying inside. In doing so, she planted a seed.

It’s not like things turned around over night, but her words along with the words of my friends and family helped me to get through. Over time, with my attention and the careful attention of those who loved me, the seed Audrey planted grew into some modicum of self-confidence.

Audrey was a first responder. She showed up after a scene of trauma and helped someone who was hurt.

Now imagine if we had communities full of Audreys.

The call to be first responders is to follow up with those who are involved in a situation of bullying to help them heal, to remind them that they are loved and okay.

Sometimes first responding is best done by a loved one, and other times it’s best done by a stranger.  But we need more first responders.

And we don’t just need them for those who’ve been targeted by bullying.  We need them for those who have been exhibiting the bullying behavior. Researchers like Barbara Coloroso help us understand that bullying is not as simple as “she’s a bully and a terrible person.”

Much bullying behavior stems from some trauma, insecurity, or hurt that someone experiences elsewhere in their life. Is it any wonder, then, that I was a pretty big bully to my friends?

In addition to reminding those who are being bullied that they are loved and valued, we need to reach out to those doing the bullying to find out what’s going on in their lives that’s making them act so terribly to other people.

After all, we can’t stop the cycle if we don’t address the root causes of why bullying is taking place.

Banding Together, Transforming Community

Whether we’re participating in a social norming effort, actively interrupting bullying behavior, or reaching out to those affected by bullying, we need to recognize that we can’t do this alone.

One thing is clear to me: The vast majority of us don’t want to see bullying tear apart our communities or hurt our young people any more.

But to build the kind of communities where bullying is not a problem requires us all to play a role.

We all have to stand UP to bullying.

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