Why Talking About Bullying is Helpful to Kids
How to increase their coping skills and decrease their sense of loneliness
Posted Sep 16, 2018
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 may be a few rough patches in the early weeks of school as relationships re-shuffle from the previous year, but for the most part, kids’ relationships will be steady. Then, there's October.
It's no coincidence that National Bullying Prevention month is scheduled for the time of year when 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 the 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 in equipping them to manage the highs and lows of their school social scene.
One of the first topics I cover with students every year is the key differences between rude, mean, and bullying behavior. Helping young people distinguish spontaneous inconsideration and anger-driven behaviors among friends from the purposeful and patterned cruelty that defines bullying is a pre-requisite for understanding and effectively responding to unwanted aggression in all of its forms. Professionals and parents also find relief in knowing what makes rudeness and mean behavior categorically different from bullying and being able to teach their kids specific skills for coping with any of the above.
Once professionals, parents, and students have clarity on how to recognize and respond to bullying, the next important step is to offer them these four categories as a helpful framework to learn about the purposeful and patterned abuses of social power that tend to peak in schools in the autumn months:
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. Common examples of physical bullying in a school setting include hitting, kicking, shoving, tripping, and intentional roughness masked through contact sports.
Ask the students/children in your lives what types of physically aggressive behaviors they see most often in schools, as a way to spark discussion and raise their awareness about the differences between rough-housing and bullying.
Beyond sticks and stones, many young people are told at some point that “words will never hurt you” and that they should “just ignore” anyone who says mean things to them. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of relentless verbal cruelty, however, knows that humiliating words and violent threats can make school unbearable and have a long-term negative impact on both academics and self-image.
Verbal bullying in schools often occurs in the form of ruthless teasing, taunting, harassment, and threats. Start a dialogue with your young person to learn about the kinds of things kids in their schools say to hurt one another and to equip them with ideas for how to effectively counter verbal 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 valued relationship, relational aggression can be especially confusing and hurtful. Also, because relational bullying typically cannot be seen and heard in the same ways that physical and verbal bullying can, this toxic type of cruelty often flies under the radar of even the most attentive of adults.
Relational bullying is schools is sometimes an active, overt process that is marked by starting a rumor about someone, rolling your eyes every time they walk into a classroom, or not saving a seat at a lunch table. More covert (and thus harder to report to adults) are the passive “crimes of omission” such as not talking to someone, not inviting someone to a party, or not including them in group activities. When young people insist to adults, “I didn’t do anything” they are being factually correct and deceitful at the same time. The silent treatment and social exclusion are hallmarks of relational bullying. Kids say they are often hesitant to talk with adults about the relational bullying they experience for three reasons:
1. The behaviors can be so subtle that they are hard to describe in words that adequately convey the purposefulness of the behavior. Kids tell me they would rather keep things to themselves than hear an adult ask, “Are you sure she really meant to do that?" or "Is it possible that you are being too sensitive and taking things too personally?”
2. They are worried that adults will take them too seriously and intervene in a way that results in even more embarrassment, isolation, and social exclusion.
3. Being socially isolated is excruciating. Kids feel humiliated enough at school. The last thing they want is to have their parents or teachers become aware of the terrible things being said about them.
As helpful adults, we must understand the barriers kids face in talking to us about relational bullying and do everything we can to remove or reduce those barriers. The imbalance of social power inherent in relational bullying means that kids cannot solve the problem themselves; they need adult intervention to even out the power dynamic, but they need it in supportive, subtle, compassionate ways rather than through overt actions that make their social lives even worse.
Cyberbullying is a specific form of bullying that involves technology. Texts, group chats, and social media — which can be used to post embarrassing photos and humiliating comments — are the most commonly used forms of online cruelty among school-aged kids. Cyberbullying can be especially destructive because of how quickly and widely cruel messages spread. The other important thing for students, parents, and professionals to be aware of is that cyberbullying usually happens in conjunction with other forms of bullying. Kids who are the receiving end of patterned physical cruelty at school often are targets of cyberbullying at night and on weekends. Likewise, social media is well-known as a medium for rumor spreading, body shaming, public humiliation, and other forms of relational aggression.
Adults can be especially helpful to kids when they monitor social media activities at a developmentally-appropriate level and have ongoing conversations about things like netiquette, digital footprint, and risks (including legal risks) of behaviors such as sexting or sharing inappropriate digital content.
What good does talking about the various forms of bullying 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 an experience 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 feel safer and when they feel safe, 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.
Signe Whitson is an international educator on Bullying Prevention strategies for professionals, parents, and students. She is the author of 7 books including the 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book for Kids and Tweens. For more information and workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com
Whitson, S. (2014). 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Whitson, S. (2011). Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.