The Latest Blog Posts From Ryan David
Bullying is not some sort of 21st century invention. However, with the creation and use of social media, along with a much more desensitized world and society for our youth to try to be young in today, bullying seems to be more widespread and prevalent than ever. For a long time “bullying” wasn't as appropriately addressed or recognized as a potentially life threatening issue as it is today. Unfortunately, it took some terrible tragedies to highlight the severity and danger of the problem. So schools, even society as a whole, began to embrace the fight against bullying. This awareness and the attempt to address bullying was, and is, a much needed good thing. However, in my experience, the pendulum has swung from many people being unaware, to a lot of people being hyper sensitive...
The terms bully and bullying are now very commonly used as an exaggerated synonym for terms such as "mean, teasing, bothering, or harassing", when there is an issue or conflict of sorts between kids. But, although it does often involve acts such as those, true bullying behavior is much more complex than those acts alone. Similar to how we understand the severity of the act and even the word rape, the act of bullying and the word bully carry their own weight. The psychological trauma associated with both of these acts and behaviors are so severe in their own way, they are truly in a league of their own. Bullying is not as much about a definition as it is an intention, or what’s behind the behavior. The line between being mean and bullying has been blurred as a result of many concerned caring parents or individuals being uninformed and uneducated when it comes to bullying. Not only do these individuals have their own perception, but often times they have their own agenda as well. This leads to a host of problems, challenges, and issues, especially for school personnel and law enforcement to investigate and address accusations or allegations of bullying.
As a school counselor for over 10 years, I've worked with thousands of kids of all ages and all grades, from seniors in high school, to kindergartners, even Pre-K students. I recently dealt with one of the more pure cases of bullying that I have experienced in my career. This led me to really think about and examine what I have learned and what I know about “bullies” and the responses of victims who experience bullying. For a decade I've personally observed and become aware of 4 primary responses by victims who experience bullying. Below I've elaborated on these four responses, and tried to explain a little bit about how and why they may take place.
When confronted by a “bully” and faced with or experiencing bully like behavior, students generally seem to respond in one of the four following ways:
A.) The victim immediately recognizes the cruel behavior or intentions by a bully and speaks up about it instantly, both to the bully, as well as notifying friends, family, and adults who can help.
-Ideally, this is the preferred and healthiest possible response…also easier said than done, as with most things that are done the right way. Students who do stand up for themselves in this manner and seek assistance from an adult should be praised and encouraged. If age appropriate, they should also be made aware of the fact that they are not only helping to prevent this from happening to anyone else, but that they are actually helping the “bully” because they need help too.
B.) The victim responds to the bullying behavior either initially or after some time has passed, not by speaking up or expressing how they feel verbally in a positive manner, but by retaliating against the bully either verbally, physically, or both. This victim may or may not notify parents or others, after they have engaged in back and forth behavior or retaliation.
- Although this reaction or response is actually what some parents encourage and prefer, it can be dangerous and problematic for a few different reasons. First, the victim can put themselves in harm’s way and get hurt physically trying to take on and solve the problem alone; not to mention over time he/she may become accustom to responding to problems or dealing with people in this way so often that they may fall into category C, which I’ll discuss in a moment. Second, the victim will no longer be seen as purely a victim and will possibly now be looked at as part of the problem. It’s one thing to stand up for yourself; it’s something else entirely to fight fire with fire.
I was once in a meeting with the father of a student who had punched a kid for pushing him in line. We met with the parents to let them know that as per the school district policy, their son would be suspended for one day hitting (the other boy was suspended as well), even though their son didn't hit first. Rather than accept the consequence and try to wrap his head around teaching his son not to react impulsively with physical violence, and instead encourage his son to let an adult know someone pushed him next time so the other kid would be the only one getting sent home, dad said to me and my assistant principal, and I quote, “Next time this happens, he’s going to punch him again, and I want you to suspend him for 3 days so I can take him to Disney world.” End quote. Father of the year? Not so much.
C.) Rather than consciously recognize the bullies behavior as intrusive, hurtful, or disrespectful, the victim buries the hurt and pain caused by the bully and almost represses the memories of the experiences along with the emotions involved. However, because this experience is not recognized or acknowledged consciously, and there for expressed or talked about in an attempt to work through it in a healthy manner, no catharsis can take place. Therefore manifestations occur in the form of behavior towards others, mainly a weaker target or subject. These behaviors resemble the unwanted, hurtful, and painful behaviors that they have experienced themselves.
-This is where the birth of another bully often takes place. The incident I dealt with recently involved a girl who was relentlessly targeting a boy in her class (yes, a mean 5th grade girl bullying a quiet shy 5th grade boy) attempting to degrade and humiliate him in front of his classmates. It turns out that girl had been experiencing the same type of behavior from another girl at her dance class outside of school for over a year. She told no one about any of it, other than briefly mentioning to her mom that the girl was mean. She sat and cried with me and told me that she thought she was fat and ugly and a terrible dancer because this bully in her dance class had made her think that was the truth for so long. This girl didn't even know or realize that she had become this mean girl herself and started to exhibit and display the same behaviors with this one boy in her class. Just as abuse victims often grow up to abuse others, the same dynamic takes place with bullies. There is a subconscious component to it on some level, outside the awareness of why the bully does what they do. Often people who bully will not have an explanation or reason or understanding why they are mean or acting that way towards others. They will often lie, or make up excuses, or blame others in a way that makes no sense in an attempt to justify it to others and to themselves. As for the girl at my school who was bullying the boy in her class, she did all the above at one point, and just prior to me helping her discover and realize where this may be coming from, she was stuck on “I don’t know”. And I believed she didn't. I referred her to an outside therapist for some professional counseling.
D.) The victim not only becomes and remains consciously aware of the pain and misery caused by the bullying behavior, they may also tolerate and comply with the bullying, hoping this will make it go away or that it will end soon. However, as it continues, they usually end up feeling trapped and begin to feel and believe that they have no control over it and it will never stop. They may not tell others out of fear or pride or embarrassment, or they may have told someone but nothing or not enough was done, so they don’t speak up again. They feel tormented to the point that all they want to do is escape or be free from the torment and devastation that they are suffering through. This is when suicide and death may start to become an option or solution in the victims mind.
-Needless to say this is the most tragic possible response or outcome when it comes to experiencing persistent bullying. Think of the Miami dolphin’s football player Jonathan Martin, the most recent high profile case of bullying behavior. It is unknown or unclear exactly why an individual who responds like this may choose not to come forward or ask for help or confront the person mistreating them, but that doesn't alter the fact that what they experience is as real and as severe to them as it is to those individuals who respond in any other way. As for the Jonathan Martin case, take a look at the childhood and background of Richie Incognito, the alleged bully, it may help put this material and that case in perspective.
So what do we do with all this information and how do we apply it proactively?
As a parent, encourage your kids to talk about their social experience at school daily. Try to start with the positive and ask them things like, “who do you talk to, who do you play with, who do you sit next to, who do you have things in common with?” Make an effort to take mental notes and remember the names of kids that seem to be important or impactful on your child's day to day routine or experience. Ask to hear more about who these kids are, what your child has learned about them, and how well they know them. If it sounds to be all peaches and cream and you suspect there is more, or you're not sure your child would tell you if there was, ask vague round about questions that kind of allude to what you want to know. Open the door by saying something like, “Is everyone in your class awesome or nice? Is there anyone in your class that the other kids don't get along with?” If you want to hear more about a specific kid that is mentioned or stands out in a more negative way, you can ask something like, “Is there anyone at school or in your class you don't like?”. You can even tell them a story about how you remember when you were in school there was a boy or girl that was mean every day and you had to learn how to either speak up and tell them to stop or to learn how to keep your distance and limit contact with that kid, or how you made an effort to have a few friends with you at any time that you anticipated you may encounter or have to interact with them.
Just remember that 1.) Your child is not you and may perceive, interpret, handle, and deal with things totally different than you did or would. 2.) Be careful not to plant seeds or overreact, there may not be a bully involved, we don’t want to invent or create one. Both of these factors can have a huge impact on your child's reality. If the word bully comes up, ask for specifics. When I hear that word or get that complaint or allegation, the first thing I want to find out is what is the victim’s idea, definition, or understanding of what a bully or bullying is. Remember, just because the word bully is used does not mean true bullying is taking place. I'll ask why they say someone is bullying them, or what makes them a bully…most of the time the answer is something like, “because they are mean to me”. At this point it is important to find out how they are mean, this is where the distinction is usually made as to whether or not a child is being persistently, systematically targeted and harassed by another kid with the intent to threaten or harm them either emotionally, mentally, or physically. Or, if it’s just a case of an interaction with another mean kid who may just treat his peers badly and has poor social skills in general. Often I will ask how they are mean, and they will say “he/she calls me names”. Now it’s true that bullying can come in the form of name calling, but we have to be careful here because just pure name calling has been around for a long time. As Sigmund Freud once said, “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization." Apparently the ability to be mean is essentially part of being human. Name calling isn't going anywhere and no one is going to stop it. It's really about tolerance and empowering our kids with confidence and a healthy self esteem so that they are able to recognize and ignore negative or mean comments as often as possible. The type of names and what is being said is what's important. Again this is where the distinction needs to be made. Are the names or words personal, are they specifically or strictly aimed at your child? Are they consistent, constant, and repetitive? Or does this mean child call everyone in the class these names, does he react in this mean way with most of the other kids when he/she wants something or doesn't get their way? Either way, the problem needs to be addressed, but those distinctions may assist in approaching and dealing with it most effectively and appropriately for all parties involved.
The school and teachers need to know about mean kids too, but it's important that your child doesn't feel or take on the role or persona of a helpless victim of bullying, when really it’s just an unfortunate case of your child having to deal with a mean kid in the class that treats others poorly, the same way adults unfortunately have to deal with a**holes in life. There is a difference between an a**hole and a bully. Dealing with and encountering unpleasant people is a part of life, and in the classroom or at school, this reality can provide critical opportunities to teach life lessons and skills such as tolerance, acceptance, focus, proximity, and ignoring others. True bullying is generally more difficult to deal with and address than “being mean” is, this is why it’s important to distinguish being mean from bullying.
If the problematic behavior by another child is something that is happening to more than just them and something that can be alleviated if addressed and dealt with appropriately by the school staff and administration, your child can help that student and the school by speaking up and letting us know. There are hundreds sometimes thousands of kids and a whole lot of different dynamics and interactions that take place on a daily basis at school, so it’s very possible for perceptions or interpretations to go unnoticed or slip through the cracks, and the teacher to never be made aware of them. Teachers need to know when there is a major problem like bullying or even a child that is mean, but often the teacher is bombarded with everything from she stepped on my paper, to he won't share his crayon, to he's sitting in my seat, to he skipped me, to he touched my book bag...all these, times 30 kids, multiplied by 6 hours a day.
That’s one of the main reasons parenting is so critical when it comes to a child's success and their education, including their education about bullying and how to recognize and respond. The parent can help teach the child about those distinctions and what is an emergency or worthy of getting help with, and what they can try to handle on their own and how to do it. Teachers are teachers, not parents, their job is to teach. But today it’s almost as if teachers are generally expected to do the job of parenting (and many do) as well. The school relies on the parent to empower and educate the child about how to handle many of these incidents on their own, and use good judgment about when to complain or ask for "help". Some kids tell the teacher about everything and some kids don’t speak up at all. The teacher has to choose their battles as to what they invest their energy into when they are made aware of an issue, but the teacher only knows what they are told or made aware of. Universally, all kids need to feel comfortable and secure when it comes to notifying someone in school about mean behavior, or disrespect, or anything that makes them feel uncomfortable for that matter. It is then up to the adults to intervene appropriately with the information they are given, by both parties involved, because there are always two sides to the story, and then there is the truth. It’s up to a few underpaid humans to decide as best as they possibly can what that truth is, and most of the time they do get it right.
I went on a bit of a rant about schools, teachers and parents, but the bottom line is help, support, and understanding from students and their parents is one of the most critical factors in successfully developing and educating our youth as to how to handle and respond to mean or bullying behavior.
A few footnotes:
*I think it’s important to note that not all people who bully exhibit or do so using the same method. In my experience, I've identified two primary methods of bullying:
The first method is what I think of as the stereotypical bully to most people, that one kid who threatens everyone he/she can into “giving up their lunch money”. This person picks on or targets anyone who appears to be weaker or a vulnerable candidate in general. They exhibit what I like to think of as “open rage” where just about anyone is susceptible.
The second method involves a person who singles out or identifies a specific target or targets, and they invest all their energy in that person or those few people. I call this “directed rage”. This is the normal, average, even nice kid that secretly or privately torments and targets a small group or one other kid in particular, for any number of reasons. This is “the new age bully” if you will, one who commonly uses tools such as social media to direct their anger and hate specifically and also to hide behind so they can save face.
*There are also two types of bullying that may be associated with either method mentioned above:
The first involves physically threatening behavior, potentially harmful aggression, and or violence.
The second is non-physical, non-violent passive-aggressive behavior that involves verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse through the use of embarrassment, humiliation, and or isolation, just to name a few.
*Also, whenever dealing with a case of bullying, do not sit down with or bring the victim and bully together before addressing them separately AND confirming that the victim is ok with talking to, being face to face, or being in the same room as the accused. Asking the victim to do this or putting them in this type of a situation without their consent may not only be uncomfortable, but also terrifying and traumatic. Use common sense, you wouldn't expect a rape victim to be ok with sitting across from or around the person who raped them. Respect a bully victim with same regard. Mediation may be possible, but long after interventions have been made individually, not ever as a first resort.
*Lastly, sometimes people forget that bullies need help too. So remember, the next time you or others want to incite an angry anti-bully mob to ostracize a kid for bullying, that has never been proven to alleviate bullying. Keep in mind that because often times the bully was or is a victim as well, they also need assistance. What most people who bully are lacking is a sense of feeling loved or significant on some level, the last thing they need is more hate or negativity in their life.
Hopefully this information and these different suggestions will empower you with some strategies and knowledge in the area of human behavior and psychology from my perspective and experience when it comes to bullying. Please share this with parents, teachers, and anyone else who you feel may benefit from this information or who may help use it to inform and empower others when it comes to addressing the issue of bullying.