Sunday, October 17, 2010


“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Old saying from the time of slavery.

Are bullies and victims born or made? And what role does a parent play? Here are some things to think about.

You get a call from school. Two scenarios. (1) Your child is in the nurse's office with a head injury. Could you please pick him up. OR (2) Your child is in the office for pushing another kid on the playground resulting in a head injury. Please come in for a meeting with the principal.

Somewhere in these scenarios lurks a bully and a victim, and after twenty-five years of teaching and playground supervision, I could say that the truth may not be immediately clear. I could also say that often the situation is not dealt with in a satisfactory way for all parties. I could further say that any parents involved would probably have feelings of anger, embarrassment, denial, helplessness or any combination thereof. Once home, the children may face an unsatisfactory parental response - either no consequence, no understanding, or even abusive punishment. There will probably not be a lot of active listening or "how to"s for the future.

Whatever the case, the truth needs to be determined. Sometimes the supposed victim starts out being a bully, with the supposed aggressor having had "enough" resulting in a bully-like response. Example: Billy, a known playground bully, consistently picks on Jimmy both in class and at recess. Jimmy suffers in silence or is not getting satisfaction from teachers and playground supervisors. For Jimmy, Billy knocking the ball out of his hands while also making a "yo mama" comment, is the "last straw". Jimmy pushes Billy down resulting in the head injury.

Hopefully right will be done, the truth ascertained and the situation dealt with fairly, ending in emotional growth for all concerned. Often, though, the wrong child gets blamed, or doesn't feel heard, causing yet another layer of anger and hostility for the original victim. It could also give the actual bully a feeling that he won the encounter.

More than likely, though, Billy the Bully has pushed Jimmy down "just because" resulting in injury, and the incident is just one more notch on his “bully belt.” He will lie or distort the truth, and rationalize his own behavior to avoid consequences. Either he gets too little or too much punishment, and learns no lessons which might curtail future behavior. He may also see bullying modeled at home which adds to his bully arsenal. Sadly, Billy's victims are also getting messages of not feeling heard, both at school and at home. In these cases layer upon layer of anger, helplessness and despair can cause depression, dysfunction at school, and later lashing out at society as they become bullies themselves; i.e. the perpetrators in the Columbine tragedy.

Girls have “bully belts” as well, with example upon example cited in the media. A fascinating incident played out recently in Seattle where one girl was attacked by another, under the eye of security guards who did nothing to stop the conflict, and with sympathy going out to the supposed victim. As the story unfolded we learned that the girls had a long-standing history of antagonism towards each other, in other words, both were bullies. In other instances, bullying, with horrible outcomes, has taken place via the internet, often with girls as the perpetrators.

Babies certainly don't come into the world as bullies, but they soon learn how to manipulate their parents, whether it is related to eating, sleeping, or going out in public. A parent’s reaction to any given situation sets the stage for future actions and reactions. We hear jokes about babies not coming with handbooks, and we see lots of parents who are uninformed, unwilling, or unable to be effective parents for whatever the reason. Unwittingly they may be creating baby bullies by not setting boundaries, enabling, or finding excuses for bad behavior. If the parent does not fully understand a parent's job and the child's needs, the bully behavior can escalate. On the flip side, if the parent is not listening to his or her child's concerns and stories with an appreciative ear, the tendency to be victimized will also escalate.

It follows that one of the solutions for curtailing bullying is to help parents be more effective, for teachers and school administrators to have expert training on the subject, and for better programs to help children to avoid being bullied or victimized. School programs like Second Step have many good points, including picture cards and role playing ideas, but they work best if the teacher is well trained and the entire school-parent-community is on-board. Looking back, there was no consistency in the school where I taught, and no real school-home connection. I question such a program’s overall success with kids under these circumstances.

Next week I will discuss how parents can raise happy, mentally healthy children by regular deposits in their children's emotional savings account.


In continuing my on-line research this week I found several sites that offer hope and help. The most intriguing was called Bullies to Buddies . Here you can find free materials showing "how to stop being teased and bullied without really trying.” It is aimed at students, teachers, parents, administrators, mental health professionals and work place personnel. The over-riding advice to a would-be victim is to ignore the bully. Read the article for greater detail.

Other sites worth checking out are:

Top Strategies for Handling a Bully for both children and parents, citing that a wise line of defense is avoidance. Other suggestions include using humor, recruiting friends, telling the bully to “Get a life. Leave me alone.”

Dealing with Bullies” is a very easy-to-read article showing why bullies act that way, how to handle them, how to prevent a run-in with one, what to do when you encounter one, and what often happens to bullies.

Education World: “Strategies for Stopping Bullying”. In essence this article is saying that since bullies are made they can be unmade, and offers some clear steps to deal with the problem.

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