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Demystifying Bullying

An insider’s view into understanding, and responding, to bullying

As much as bullying hogs the headlines’ limelight, there’s still a lot of confusion about it. October is National Bullying Prevention Month and to demystify the hot topic for both parents and educators, I recently caught up with Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology and the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, and author of the just-released book “Bullying and Cyberbullying” (Harvard Educational Press). 

Just a few decades ago, most bullying recorded by researchers was physical in nature, Englander said, and so both parents and educators today are befuddled about what constitutes bullying.

“Today, children use psychological methods and social snubs to wage campaigns of contempt against their peers. The specific behaviors that they use are called ‘gateway behaviors,’ and are essentially rude displays of contempt, designed to let the target know how poorly they are regarded by peers: eye-rolling when a target gets an answer wrong in class; whispering pointedly about a target right in front of them; refusing to let them occupy an empty seat at a lunchroom table; calling them names or laughing at them,” she said.

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“The difficulty is that these gateway behaviors are used in many situations — not just in bullying situations, but when children are annoyed or angry with each other, when they are teasing each other, or even if they are simply being mean one time — none of which are bullying. If an educator sees a child being called a name, they have no way of knowing if this is the first time it’s happening; if it’s the hundredth time it’s happening; if the children in question are fighting; or if bullying is going on. This is why it’s so difficult to distinguish teasing from bullying nowadays.”

In fact, Englander believes that the word bullying has been misused to describe events of peer aggression. But in her book, she lays out three pivotal characteristics of true bullying: a clear power differential between children, repetitiveness, and intentionality. “Bullying is a dysfunctional relationship between two children,” she writes.

Preventing and dealing with gateway behaviors is key. And stopping them before they progress into bullying is all about setting unwavering expectations about behavior, says Englander.

“We seem to be pretty good about conveying our expectations about physical aggression to our students, but many schools I work with struggle to frame expectations regarding psychological bullying,” she said. “And as we’ve seen, most bullying isn’t physical anymore.”

Parents and educators should communicate that they expect civil behavior all of the time, and nothing less. Inside the classroom, Englander advocates for what she calls the “9-second response.” Step one involves responding to gateway behaviors — and yes, that means every little eye roll. But, she insists, if you reinforce your expectations consistently, “you won’t have to do it for long.” Step two is telling the offending child that “you — not the target — are offended and bothered and that must stop.”

Responding to full-blown cases of bullying typically involves mediation, bringing the bully and the target together. That creates a delicate a situation, Englander says, and one that can actually backfire against the target.

“Mediation works when both parties have equal power and both parties want the situation to end,” she said. “It works beautifully for quarrels, but with bullying, the bully doesn’t want the situation to end, and the target has much less power and is less likely to be candid during mediation. No matter how safe the adults make the situation, the target knows he or she will have to face the bully again later, when the adults aren’t there. There’s no way to make the entire world safe for them.”

Helping children cope and to be resilient is “just as, and sometimes more important, than adults fixing situations,” Englander insists.

She points out a study of two Italian middle schools, which found that peers spending time with targets, talking to targets, helping them get away from negative situations, and providing emotional support was just as important as stopping bullying. (Bullying should always be stopped, Englander notes, if it can be done successfully.) However, reinforcing resiliency and creating a community where certain behaviors aren’t tolerated is crucial in the long run.

Bystanders should know that their complacency also won’t be tolerated. “Everyone on the community needs to think about how they respond to bullying behaviors,” said Englander. “You’re not off the hook just because you didn’t witness the bullying — we can all work to create a climate that doesn’t promote contemptuous behaviors.”

 

For more on Englander, visit http://elizabethenglander.com; for more information on her book, visit http://hepg.org/hep/book/188/BullyingAndCyberbullying.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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