Late August and September are the honeymoon season in many schools across the United States; the time of year when students are exploring new friendships, feeling out the shifting social hierarchies of their grade, and determining where they fit in. As a school counselor, I have learned to anticipate that there will be a few rough patches in the early weeks of school as relationships re-shuffle from the previous year, but for the most part, the friendship waters will be steady. Then, there's October.
It's no coincidence that National Bullying Prevention month falls at that time of year when select school-aged kids have sized each other up, calculated their relative social power, and begun to stake out their new place in the peer pecking order. In this game of social whack-a-mole where young people put each other down in order to boost themselves up, bullying is often the strategy of choice to "win" the popularity wars. Teaching young people how to recognize bullying in all of its shapes, forms, practices, and methods is the necessary first step to equipping them to manage the highs and lows of their school social scene.
These four categories are a helpful framework to teach young people about purposeful and patterned abuses of social power that tend to peak in schools in the autumn months:
Physical bullying: The traditional "sticks and stones" of aggression, this kind of bullying includes a range of antagonistic behaviors in which one person aims to cause bodily harm to another person.
Verbal bullying: As the second half of the old-school children's rhyme goes, “words will never hurt you.” Anyone who has been on the receiving end of verbal bullying, however, knows that cruel words and scary threats can be very painful and often have long-term consequences.
Relational bullying: In relational bullying, kids use friendship—and the threat of taking their friendship away—to hurt others. This is the type of bullying most often referred to as “drama.” Because it often happens within the context of a once prized relationship, relational aggression can be especially confusing and hurtful.
Cyberbullying is a specific form of bullying that involves technology, most often group chats and social media. Cyberbullying can be especially destructive because of how quickly and widely cruel messages spread.
After defining these distinct (though frequently overlapping) types of bullying, it is helpful for adults to engage kids in a conversation about how each type of bullying gets played out in their everyday lives. The most common behaviors kids talk about tend to include:
Hitting, kicking, and spitting (obvious to any kid witnesses who may be present; often committed as a blatant show of power). Shoving, tripping, elbowing (which are often justified by kids as "accidental" to any adult witnesses who observe the behavior)
Teasing, threatening, name calling, slut-shaming, and harassing. Just today, I overheard a group of girls accusing a classmate of flaunting her "booty shorts" as a way to justify why they were excluding her from their lunch table. (Yes, I directly addressed the cruelty with the girls, in the moment, in a way that did not further humiliate the girl they were trying to shame.)
Starting rumors, gossiping, intentionally excluding, socially isolating, and using the silent treatment are all red flags of relational bullying. As is following up a purposely cruel statement with “just joking” and/or "I didn't realize you were so sensitive."
Using social media to post embarrassing photos and humiliating comments, trolling online, calling someone out in a group chat and/or setting up fake social media accounts are among the most common ways to make cruelty go viral.
What good does talking about it do?
Talking with kids about the specific ways that drama and bullying show up in their lives is a fundamental way of helping them put language to emotion and thus gain an intellectual understanding of an otherwise confounding emotional experience. At the same time, when kids understand and can identify bullying in all of its forms, they feel less alone and more connected to the person who is helping them make sense of the social dynamic. When young people are connected, they are ready to learn. It is in this space that parents, caregivers, counselors, teachers, coaches, and other caring adults can reach and teach kids the skills and strategies they need to respond most effectively to the types of aggression most prominent in their lives.