The "poster child" behavior for the five kinds of social cruelty I describe in my recent book "Why Good Kids Act Cruel" (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up) is bullying.
Because it can result in physical harm to the victim or cause the victim, in despair, to harm him self, bullying is the form of social cruelty that most often makes the headline news. For example, a bullied student is physically assaulted or suicides in response to relentless bullying.
In a way this coverage is too bad because it obscures more than it informs. By sensationalizing the extreme - when social cruelty turns to social violence - it focuses attention on the tip of the iceberg of the problem at the expense of noticing the less dramatic daily damage being done.
What never makes the news are the vast majority of acts of social cruelty that school staff and parents tend to miss because the damage is infrequently reported by students and is also harder for adults to acknowledge and to see.
Bullying satisfies the need for dominance in insecure adolescents who are striving to assert social power and establish social place. It exploits the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others, particularly fear, in order for the bully to feel strong.
Bullies are usually not looking for a fight; they are looking for someone who will give in and back down. This is why there is no such thing as a self-made bully. Bullies are made by other people who, when pushed around or threatened, are willing to act intimidated.
This is also why, if parents possibly can, they want to empower their son or daughter when being accosted by a bully to assert him or herself. It takes courage and builds self-esteem to stand up to a bully; it erodes self-esteem, even induces shame and helplessness, when one cannot.
So the job of parents is to coach their son or daughter about how to counter this aggression when it comes his or her way. Here are some component steps in that coaching that may prove helpful as you try to strengthen your child to meet the challenge at hand.
1)Accept fear. Let the young person know that there is nothing wrong with or weak about experiencing fear. Fear is a functional emotion. It alerts people to the possible danger of getting hurt. However, fear can feel hard to talk about, so appreciate your son or daughter being brave enough to express it to you. Then explain that while feeling afraid of a bully is okay, acting afraid may not be okay since it often encourages the bully to carry on. Bullies feel strong when the person bullied acts afraid. So how should the target of the bullying act? First, consider actions to avoid.
2)Identify how NOT to act. Ask your son or daughter how he or she could behave to show the bully that he or she is afraid. For example, the young person might identify running away, shutting up, crying, backing down, or pleading to be left alone. Praise the young person for knowing some things not to do, actions that could make the bullying worse or at least encourage it to continue. Next, consider possible actions to take.
3)Identify how TO act. Ask your son or daughter how he or she would deal with the bully if he or she was NOT feeling afraid, if he or she simply didn't like being treated that way and wanted it to stop. For example, the young person might identify things to say: "Cut it out!" "Go pick on somebody else!" "I can push and shove too!" Or the young person might identify things to do: stepping closer, making eye contact, looking mad. Praise the young person for knowing some things to do. Next, consider doing the unexpected.
4)Violate predictions. Ask your son or daughter how the bully predicts he or she will respond to the bullying. For example, the young person might think the bully is predicting how he or she is going to give over the lunch money, not tell any adult at school about it, and act like it's okay. Then ask: "What could you do to violate those predictions and not give the bully what that person is expecting from you?" Your child may say: "Not give the money, tell my counselor what is going on, and say I don't want to be asked for my lunch money again." When bullies don't get what they predict they often decide to go after someone else. Next, consider how to treat the bully after standing up to that person is accomplished.
5)Normalize the relationship. Ask your son or daughter how he or she relates to someone who is a social acquaintance at school, but not really a good friend. When the young person replies, "I greet them, call them by name, and usually smile," you can suggest that is how to treat the bully after the bullying is over. "You don't have to interact beyond that, just engage enough for the bully to know that he or she is not being avoided by you but is now being treated as a normal part of your social world."
This leaves the final question: how can parents know when the bullying has gone too far, become too severe, and it is now time for them to talk with him or her about intervening at school? Assess how your child is responding to this mistreatment on five levels of outcome.
1)Is there an observable drop in self-esteem shown by the young person believing that being bullied shows something bad about him self? "There's something wrong with me." "I deserve it."
1)Is there anxiety about going to school, a sense of threat, a sense that school is not a safe place to go? "I don't want to go to school." "I feel sick to day." "Drive me, I don't want to take the bus."
2)Is there evidence of the young person developing detrimental social habits from being bullied? Is she acting more socially withdrawn? Is she becoming less inclined to speak up for her self? Is she sullen with anger now?
3)Is there evidence of being physically hurt or socially harassed when the young person comes home from school? Are there bruises on his body? Are his clothes torn? Are his possessions damaged or missing? Is he receiving threatening or demeaning communication via phone, text messages, or over the Internet?
4)Is there a drop in grades as concern for social safety now interferes with her academic focus? Worries about getting hurt now get in the way of paying attention to instruction in class and interfere with usual motivation to do school work.
Any one of these outcomes is enough for parents to know it is time to talk. More than one may warrant their active advocacy and intervention.
Next week's entry: Adolescence and self-discipline.