Every year, one in five students will be bullied. Of those students, one in three will be bullied in the classroom. Worse still, there’s no break from the torture: The rise of cyberbullying has created a constant threat, which magnifies the already traumatic effects that bullying has on its victims. It used to be that at the end of the school day, students could get some distance from teachers and classmates. They could go home and watch a favorite television show, play with neighborhood friends, or spend time with family. Now, kids are susceptible on any platform, at any time of day.
Bullying is pervasive, so the idea developed that it’s a natural part of school life and that everyone goes through it at one point or another. But we now know that bullying has a traumatic and lasting impact on the victim. Being bullied constitutes an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which has been shown to contribute to future experiences of violence and victimization that carry significant negative implications for lifelong physical and emotional health. The experience and threat of bullying force the victim to be hyper-vigilant: their amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our primal self-protective instincts known as ‘fight-or-flight,’ becomes overactive. This means that victims are likelier to experience anxiety and depression and have difficulty sleeping. An overactive amygdala also keeps the higher functions of the brain, such as planning, decision-making, conflict resolution, and others, offline. The amygdala is so easily triggered that these other cognitive functions take a back seat. At a time when a child should be processing a high volume of new information, their brain is focused primarily on survival.
When a child or adolescent experiences bullying, they develop the mindset of a victim which is incredibly difficult to undo. During childhood and adolescence, kids are already hyper-focused on the way they fit into the world around them. When someone is the victim of bullying, they begin to worry that there’s something wrong with them that is causing other kids to treat them this way. As parents and educators, we inadvertently reinforce this concern by making the victim responsible for solving the issue. We require that they see a school counselor or psychologist, encourage them to act differently so as not to provoke the bully, or rearrange their schedule and activities to avoid the bully. We tend to isolate the victim and the bully and address each incident as a unique problem. What we want to do instead is reframe bullying as everyone’s responsibility.
We know that the strongest resolution for incidents of bullying lies in educating and empowering bystanders. Over half of bullying incidents stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the victim. Most schools are beginning to teach bystander training and establish strong bullying policies upfront. So, what can parents do?
If one parent’s child is the victim of bullying, another parent’s child is the bully, and others are bystanders. Have a sense of where your child is. The easiest way to find out is to ask:
- Is anyone being left out? Does anyone seem to be struggling to make friends?
- Who are the outliers in their classes? Who are the potential victims of bullies?
- They don’t have to make that kid their best friend, but how can they support them?
- Do they ever see bullying at school? If so, what do they do or what would they do?
From here, we can teach kids to be active bystanders and guide them toward taking responsibility. Teach them that if they step up and enlist friends to do the same, it goes a long way. If we think about addressing bullying from this standpoint, we can work to prevent some of its most harmful effects. If a victim sees that classmates and peers aren’t indifferent to what is going on, they’ll be less likely to get locked into a victim mentality. In these ways, we can also teach inclusivity, empathy, and social responsibility. When everyone feels responsible for ensuring that each individual is safe and treated with respect, we send the message that bullying is not the victim’s problem, it’s on everyone. This, in turn, shows the victim that the issue is with the bully’s behavior, not with them, and will reinforce a sense of safety and well-being in kids' lives, assurances that every child deserves.