What To Do About Bullies

by Janet M. Powers

Bullying occurs at all ages, from small children in Day Care who kicks others because they want toys, to spouses who belittle because you haven’t refilled the toilet paper. And of course we also find bullies in the workplace, where the boss may threaten to cut salaries if employees don’t work overtime or colleagues spread lies about co-workers. Bullies may be male or female, gay or straight, old or young.

A bully is someone who takes advantage of someone else by threatening force or seeking control over the victim in some way. Some bullies even delight in controlling whole groups of people. Most bullies, including children, take on their roles to cover weakness. A bully is frequently someone who is afraid of being a wimp or fears that inadequacies will show if he or she appears vulnerable.

Bullying, however, can also result from having poor role models. If a child’s parents bully him or her, or bully each other, the child may think that such behavior is normal and absorb bullying into personal behavior patterns. Opening oneself to vulnerability is not easy for any of us, but parents can model positive aspects of vulnerability by admitting openly to each other, and to children, when they have made a mistake.

Apologizing, correcting the error, and moving on will go a long way toward demonstrating that vulnerability is not a negative condition. Whether at home, in the workplace, or in the schoolroom, failure to admit mistakes leads to loss of respect and impaired communication. Everyone knows that it takes a “big” person to own up to an error, so respect is generated by demonstrating such strength. A good role model will help young people develop self-esteem.

Bullies, moreover, often find their victims among children who are loners, considered “different” for some reason, or have few friends. The bully who is trying to cover up his or her own weaknesses will prey on people with similar weaknesses, those who appear easy to manipulate. Children with poor self-esteem may become victims of bullying, a situation which further reinforces lack of self-confidence. About 14% of bullied children have such severe reactions that they develop lifelong psychiatric problems.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, bullying victims frequently don’t report it. Yet the NASP and the U.S. Department of Justice state that about 160,000 children and young people miss school each day out of fear of bullying. It takes many forms: pulling hair, pushing and shoving, teasing, name-calling, taking lunch money, and alienation. Boys are more likely to bully physically and girls more likely to bully verbally by teasing or telling lies about someone.

Parents need to look for signs that children might be victims of bullying: increased excuses to stay home from school, falling grades, lack of interest in school and other activities, frequent crying, low self-esteem, lack of compassion for others, unexplained anger and moodiness, unexplained injuries or torn clothing, unexplained money or belongings missing, frequent sleep problems, bed-wetting, frequent headaches. Ask your child, “Is something bothering you?” Stay calm and listen. Don’t interrupt with judgments or blame anyone, including the bully.

Try to obtain as much information as possible, and explain that you want to help the child find ways to deal with the bully. Emphasize that no one deserves to be bullied, and talk about how to avoid being an easy target by developing confident body language. Encourage the child to practice strong body language in front of a mirror, but also build the child’s self-esteem by practicing positive reinforcement – praise those things done well and minimize mistakes.

Sometimes the best thing to do is not respond to a bully, to just turn and walk away. Ignore the bully. How can he or she bully you if you won’t listen? Stay calm. Bullies want victims to be scared, upset, or angry. If you don’t react, the bully loses. Of course, it’s wise to avoid being alone in a place where the bully can pick on you. If lies are being told, they can be countered by “truth rumors.” And if the bullying continues, it’s important to confide in others about the problem, and to seek help from school officials.

(Adapted from Let’s Put an End to Bullying, a Parent-Child Learning Activities Book, available free at the Mediation Services of Adams County booth at the Health and Safety Day for Kids on Sunday, May 3).