Casey Lancaster, MA, LPC, School Counselor, Mountain Brook Junior High
As children learn to navigate their social world, learning to rebound is part of being resilient. As parents, counselors, and educators, our focus is to help children develop skills to be able to handle challenging moments effectively and to continue to grow in the face of adversity.
As parents, we are often outraged by some of the actions of another child toward our own or other children. During these times, it is natural to provide comfort, but there is also a great opportunity to help them grow and learn from this challenge.
These days, students use the terms “rude,” “mean,” and “bullying” interchangeably. However, it is important for students to understand the differences between what is rude or mean, and bullying. Signe Whitson, a counselor and author with twenty years of experience working with children, teens, and families, offers clearly defined distinctions to illuminate these differences in her article “Is It Rude, Mean or Bullying?”.
Whitson’s definition of bullying identifies the hallmarks of bullying behavior and explains how it differs from behavior that is simply rude or mean. She states, “Bullying is intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.” (Whitson, S. Psychology Today, 2012).
In my experience, rudeness is inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else. Examples include jumping ahead in line, burping in someone’s face, or bragging about a test grade. The hallmark difference between what is rude and what is mean has to do with the intentions behind the behavior. Most of the time, rudeness is unintentional, whereas the goal of mean behavior is to hurt someone. Examples of mean behavior include making fun of someone’s appearance, clothing, or intelligence. Whitson explains, “Make no mistake; mean behaviors can wound deeply and adults can make a huge difference in the lives of young people when they hold kids accountable for being mean. Yet, meanness is different from bullying in important ways that should be understood and differentiated when it comes to intervention.” (Whitson, S. Psychology Today, 2012).
When students, parents, school personnel, police, and others are able to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying behaviors, it becomes easier to identify and intervene at the appropriate level.
In the article, 8 Things Kids Can Say or Do to Stop Bullying, Whitson offers down-to-earth advice, as well as an activity book and companion guide for parents and schools. Whitson also poses strategies for both bystanders and the one being bullied to use when encountering bullying behaviors. For example, she suggests that bystanders take an active role in the situation by changing the subject, scattering the crowd, or seeking help. Whitson also notes actions that bystanders can do to help once an incident is over, such as expressing sympathy for what happened, complimenting, encouraging, or discounting/discrediting the hurtful messages.
Most often in my role as a school counselor, students ask for help after an incident has occurred. First, I’ll listen to what happened and how it made the student feel. We also talk about what to do if something similar happens again.
Everyone can relate to how embarrassing it feels when you’re caught off guard by a situation and don’t know what to say. One particular strategy that I teach students to use involves memorizing certain phrases to say when confronted, before simply walking away. Much like practicing for a fire drill, the student and I will practice using these phrases in case a similar situation occurs again. Click here for examples of possible things to say. This way, when the time comes, the likelihood of a student freezing up is lowered because they’ve practiced and know what to do. Kids tell me they feel more confident and empowered when they have a plan. It is important to note that once he or she makes a statement, the child needs to turn and walk away, rather than standing there waiting for the aggressor to reply. Never give an opportunity for them to keep talking — even if they do say something else, you can always pretend not to hear it because you’ve walked on.
When a student is describing the hurtful details of a situation, I want to make sure the painful messages are not internalized—preventing another person to define or devalue who they are. A key point that I focus on with students is to rebuke the judgment and reframe what has happened in terms of what is true. I will engage in the same conversation with parents so that there is vernacular alignment.
One of my go-to resources is Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, which is based upon Theodore Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech: “It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Through a series of reflective questioning, my goal is to help students arrive at the conclusion that the others who are judging you, shaming you, and excluding you lack accurate or truthful opinions. The main take-home message I want to impart is that others do not get to define who you are!
Finally, I ask the student to take to heart in this quote from Brené Brown and to identify their supporters: “I’ve learned that the people who love me, the people I really depend on, were never the critics who were pointing at me while I stumbled. They weren’t in the bleachers at all. They were with me in the arena. Fighting for me and with me.”
prepared by Dale Wisely, Ph.D. All In Mountain Brook
We used to think of bullying as being physically aggressive behavior and being picked on. What is a good definition for current times?
Physically aggressive behavior toward a person perceived as smaller and weaker still happens, of course. But we now know that much of the behavior we think of as bullying is verbal and social. It can be hidden from adults because it can seem quite subtle. As we all know, much of it takes place through technology. But, we think a decent definition of bullying could be “Deliberately making someone else feel bad, especially when occurring as a pattern. ”
Most experts on bullying say that in order to be bullying, these components are present.
Aggression: Intent to harm. Aggression can be physical, but also verbal and social. Intent to harm might refer to physical harm or emotional/social harm. It’s important to note, though, that when youth (or adults, for that matter) are accused of bullying and harassment, they almost always deny intent to harm. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t trying to make her feel bad,” and so on. So, parents should not necessarily take the word of kids who have been involved in bullying when they say they didn’t intend to do harm.
Imbalance of power. Bullies have more power, or perceived power, than their victims. Physical bullying usually involves an aggressor who is stronger, larger, or just more willing to be violent. Social/verbal bullying usually is about an aggressor who has more social status among peers and perhaps the support of peers.
Pattern / recurrence. Generally, we don’t consider behavior bullying or harassment until it occurs as a pattern or recurs. In a time when bullying can lead to serious disciplinary consequences, we probably should not consider isolated events as bullying. At the same time, some single episodes are so serious–and so potentially harmful–that school officials, for example, might treat an individual incident as an episode of bullying or harassment.
What are some of the effects of bullying?
Because all of us are concerned about bullying and are aware of some of the serious consequences of it, we tend to be harsh in our thinking about people who bully. However, one of the most important insights about bullying is that victims of bullying, witnesses of bullying (bystanders) and kids who bully share in different negative effects of bullying. Victims, of course, can be harmed. But research indicates that youth who repeatedly bully others are themselves at risk of not doing well. Bullying is linked to many negative outcomes related to mental health, substance use, and suicide. There may be issues in cause and effect in this observation. It may be that there may be some underlying factors in childen who bully that contribute both to bad behavior such as bullying and then contribute to these other outcomes.
Youth Who are Bullied
Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, school, and mental health issues. Kids who are bullied are more likely to experience:
- Depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood.
- Health complaints
- Decreased academic achievement and school participation.
A very small number of bullied children might retaliate through extremely violent measures.
Youth Who Bully
Kids who bully others may also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood. They may be more likely to:
- Abuse alcohol and other drugs
- Get into fights, vandalize property
- Drop out of school
- Engage in early sexual activity
- Have criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults
- Be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults
Kids who witness bullying are more likely to:
- Have increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs
- Have increased mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
- Miss or skip school
The Relationship between Bullying and Suicide
Media reports often link bullying with suicide. However, most youth who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or engage in suicidal behaviors.
Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.
What can parents do?
Parents should be aware that their children could well be the victims of bullying, could be bystanders, and could be participants in bullying others.
If a child is accused of bullying behavior, we recommend parents take it seriously, not be too defensive of their child, and consider that many good kids are capable of participating in bullying at some point, under some conditions.
Here are some questions to ask a child to help determine if they are being bullied.
- Do you have a nickname?
- Have you been teased?
- What kinds of things do the others tease you about?
- What’s recess/break like for you? PE? Lunch? Before school? After school?
- Has any of the kids said or done anything to you just to make you feel bad? How about online or on your phone?
If you have reason to believe your child is being bullied, here are some things to consider doing.
- First and foremost: Offer comfort and support. LISTEN. Assure your availability to listen and help.
- Support your child’s non-violent response to bullying
- Help student develop peer support (new friends, peer activities that provides connection and support.
- Initiate regular check-in conversations on an ongoing basis
- Speak to the school counselor regarding additional steps
- Report bullying that occurs at school to school counselors or administrators. You may call, email, or make an appointment. Utilize the school’s Reporting Line to communicate with administrators and counselors about a bullying situation.
- Be aware of danger of making things worse. When children who are bullied tell adults, they are often worried that they will get bullied even more if the adults do not handle the situation well. If it is known to peers that bullying victim has told adults, he or she may be shunned or otherwise mistreated. This is why it is important for adults to carefully plan a proper way of dealing with the situation.
- Work closely and cooperatively with school. Avoid “Us against the school” approach
- Recognize it is complex problem to be worked on over time.