Why is my child being bullied?
This is perhaps one of the most painful questions a parent may ever have to ask themselves. You hear about it on the news, from other parents, but you never think it will happen to your child. Understanding the circumstances that allow bullying is the first step in knowing how to prevent your child from being bullied.
After reading this post, you will know how to recognize bullying and the reasons it exists. A follow-up post will lay out how to stop bullying.
What is bullying?
Bullying is a systemic form of aggression. It can occur at home, at school, among peers and on social media.
Bullying in schools creates an unsafe environment that interferes with learning and academic potential. After all, how can a child focus on learning if they are afraid of being beat-up or taunted during their school day?
Bullying can occur in the bathroom, lunch- room, locker room, playground and on the school bus. These are all areas that feature low levels of supervision. Teachers may or may not be aware of the bullying that takes place or the extent of it. As parents, we need to recognize if our child is being bullied at school and understand why it may be happening in order to ameliorate the situation.
The most commonly accepted definition of bullying is defined by Dan Olweus. He is widely considered as the founding father of bullying related research. Dan describes bullying as repeated, intentional aggressive actions, by one who has more power than the victim.
In all cases, a power imbalance is present. It can be of physical strength, size, social status or popularity between the bully and the victim. It can also occur if the bully has embarrassing information about the victim, or if the victim has limitations (disabilities) that the bully preys upon.
Bullying usually does not occur among equals. There is no imbalance to leverage in such situations. The bully will select a victim he feels he can somehow win against.
How do I recognize bullying? Ideal questions to ask the victim or witnesses are:
- Is it a repeated harassment, name-calling or intimidation situation?
- Is it more than a one-time incident?
- Is it intentional on the part of harasser?
- Is the harasser taking pleasure in causing and witnessing hurt to victim’s body or feelings?
- Is the harasser stronger or bigger than the victim?
- Does the harasser have support of a social group that makes them more popular than the victim?
- Is the victim left feeling down, depressed, shamed or sad?
Olweus’ conventional definition can be expanded by looking through the eyes of those who have been bullied. In Bullying Scars, by Ellen Walser deLara, deLara interviewed several adults who were bullied as children. She shows evidence of how it has impacted their lives into adulthood.
Using her research, we can broaden the definition of bullying to include:
- Being demeaned.
- Being physically or emotionally taunted.
- Anything that someone does to make you feel bad about yourself.
- Not necessarily a repeated event, if it is traumatic enough by nature
There is no doubt we can all agree that no child should be subject to bullying. It is an aggression and condition that greatly impacts childhood development and experiences. It plays a critical role in determining the type of adults its victims become.
Why then does bullying in schools exists, and why does it seem to perpetuate?
FIRST REASON -THE SCHOOLS
Why is Bullying Allowed to Happen in Schools?
It is an unfortunate fact that most children will have witnessed bullying in some form or other by the time they leave high school. Most kids will have seen physical or verbal bullying, whether they recognize it or not at the time.
Why is bullying occurring in the schools? Why does it seem that sometimes, some school officials are not aware or not openly and obviously admitting that bullying is a problem in their schools? After all, are schools not supposed to be a safe place at all times?
It seems counter-intuitive to think that schools are part of the problem. It is even more startling to think that the teachers, principles and administration may be aware of it, but are in stark denial.
To answer why bullying is allowed to happen in schools, we can refer to General System Theory, or systems theory.
According to general system theory, the goal of systems, such as schools, is to maintain the status quo. The relationship between all the parts is set and any change upsets the balance.
In schools, in order to maintain the status quo, everyone has to conform to their roles. Anyone who acts differently is upsetting the system, and is therefore seen as causing the problem. Meaning, a child who is different (as many victims of bullies are), or acts different, is upsetting the system. Anyone who “fixes” the problem will be allowed to do so, with the system turning a blind eye!
Think about it! A child who does not conform to the environment, or fit in with the population characteristics of the school, is a target for bullies, with silent permission from the school!
Is the culture in your school one of silent permission?
- Do the teachers model bullying behavior in their interactions with the students by being disrespectful or verbally aggressive?
- Do the teachers look the other way when students are being verbally or physically aggressive toward one another?
- Do the teachers fail to intervene when incidents are brought to their attention?
Imagine how much power this gives the bully and how disheartening it is for the victim! Victims are left to feel that they are on their own to deal with it. This dysfunction is allowed to continue, in order to keep order in the school!
“Feeling connected, safe and able to encounter new ideas isn’t just good practice in advisory. Creating that environment for students is a fundamental good for classrooms and schools everywhere. It’s essentially human, and increasingly supported by current research and evidence.” -wildwoodschoolblog.org
Now that we understand the system, we must change it.
Teachers and all other school staff need to be trained, educated and given the support to break this cycle and change the school environment that allows bullying. School officials need to be held accountable by parents, the public and by anti-bullying laws.
Recently, we see that with media attention and parents speaking out, the stigma behind bullying is slowly being transferred from the victim, to the bully, and in turn, to the schools themselves.
SECOND REASON -THE BULLY HIMSELF
Who is Doing the Bullying?
As we have come to learn with life experience, bullies come in all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds. They feed off power and fear. As adults, we know this to be true in the workplace, and sorry to say, this is also true in schools.
Where do bullies come from?
Bullies seem to come from families where:
- There is violence in the home
- There is a lack of empathy and compassion in the home
- The focus is on gaining power over one another in the home
- There is lack of supervision or lack of parental involvement
- There may be substance or alcohol abuse in the home
Characteristics of bullies
Aggression is this is the most common characteristic of bullies. They use their physical advantages of strength or size to drive fear or exert control over their victims. Their victims are smaller, physically weaker or younger than them. The bullies are rewarded by taking possessions from the target or by getting attention from others. They have no sense of personal responsibility for their actions.
These types of bullies are looking to fit in with a peer group. They are looking to be accepted and they use bullying as means to get attention. They are generally insecure and fall easily to peer pressure. They may participate in bullying to feel better about themselves and to gain social acceptance.
As the name suggests, these are bullies who have been bullied themselves. They use the opportunity to regain some control over their own victimization. They may feel isolated and disconnected to their peers, and to the school environment in general. The term victim should not take away from the first part – bully. They are still bullies.
These bullies have no real social or emotional problems. They participate in bullying for fun or to entertain others. They are usually popular, high achievers, and socially adept. They feel that they are superior to anyone who is different from them, thereby entitling them to bully.
“We focus so much on our differences, and that is creating, I think, a lot of chaos and negativity and bullying in the world. And I think if everybody focused on what we all have in common – which is – we all want to be happy.” – Ellen DeGeneres
These bullies usually hide behind anonymity and use social media to harass, threaten and embarrass their victims. They may be using cyber bullying as a means to get back at people who they feel have wronged them, or who they feel deserve it.
Types of Bullying
Researchers have identified four main types of bullying; physical, verbal, psychological and cyber.
Physical bullying is the most overt and perhaps the most common perception of bullying. It involves actual harm or the threat of harm to the victim’s body. Hitting, pushing, shoving or knocking someone down are obvious forms of bullying. It also involves stealing or damaging the victim’s property, be it an electronic gadget or an item of clothing.
Verbal bullying includes taunts, degrading comments, teasing or any abusive language including swearing. It can be, but not necessarily, racist, sexist or homophobic.
Psychological bullying is just as harmful as physical and verbal bullying. It can be characterized as excluding one from a group, spreading unflattering rumors or gossip, isolating or making the victim feel unsafe. Think about threatening or intimidating looks.
Cyber bullying is using social media to threaten or humiliate. Cyberbullies can hide behind anonymity! Bullies can post messages and embarrassing information on social media platforms accessible to many, or send messages directly to victims.
Is there a difference by gender and age?
The answer is yes, though the lines may be blurring.
Physical and verbal bullying is more often found in boys. Girls who bully, tend to use psychological and cyber bullying tactics.
Psychological bullying, by entitled bullies is illustrated well in the Hollywood movie Mean Girls. In Mean Girls, a group of popular, socially adept girls, use exclusion, snide remarks and passive aggressiveness as a form of bullying. A burn book holds all their judgement and cruel comments about classmates.
Physical and verbal bullying starts in preschool. Yes, preschool! This is a direct type of bullying and it is prevalent in elementary school and peaks in middle-school.
Psychological and cyberbullying increases in high school.
Bullying peaks in middle school.
Bullying increases throughout elementary school, peaks in middle-school, and tends to decline in high school. So what is it about middle school kids that brings out the bullies?
Anyone who has gone through middle-school has been exposed to groups, social circles, cliques, the in-group and the obvious hierarchies – one group is more desirable than another, and so forth up or down the chain.
We can look to the Theory of Social Dominance for some understanding of what these kids are thinking. Social dominance theory centers around the maintenance and stability of groups, based on social hierarchies.
Hierarchy, or popularity seems to become quite important in the middle school years. This is a time when children are more conscious of group dynamics, inclusion and exclusion and are generally more aware of where they fit in among their peers. It is also a time when students are given more independence and less school supervision, creating opportunity for bullying.
The new social structure of middle-school presents a challenge for fitting in. Bullies may use aggression and attention-seeking behavior to find their place. They may feel that by being tough, or by getting a laugh, they will move up the social hierarchy. Unfortunately, they may in fact, gain popularity if those around provide support and positive feedback to the bullying behavior. Remember, even those who are not doing the bullying, are still trying to fit in.
THIRD REASON- EASY TARGETS
Who is Being Bullied?
It is a myth that bullying is a normal part of childhood. It is a myth that everyone gets bullied. In fact, bullies are selective – they will select targets they fell they can win against. This selection explains in part why some kids will get bullied again, even though they have changed schools.
Notice the word target versus victim.Bullies will choose targets and test them. Some are easier targets than others.
Bullies will continue harassing those that they can win against. They win by taking their stuff or making them cry. If a child shows fear or reacts to the bully, the bully will be encouraged.
This is not to assign any blame on the victim! They are not at fault, nor are they inviting bullying! Rather, it is to explain how bullies choose their victims.
“Fighting means you could lose. Bullying means you can’t. A bully wants to beat somebody; he doesn’t want to fight somebody.” -Andrew Vachss
Characteristics of victims
Most victims of bullying fall into this category. These children are usually quiet and insecure. They may be socially isolated and have few or no friends. They may not have a group to hang out with, which is sometimes a shield to bullying.
They usually have overprotective parents and have not had the chance to develop problem-solving or resilience skills. They may feel a lack of control or lack self-confidence to stand up to the bully. A typical reaction would be to cry to run away. Unfortunately, this provides positive reinforcement for the bully.
In a later post we will talk about how your child can avoid going from a being a target to a victim. They may not be able to avoid being a target (being tested by the bully), but they have a chance to avoid becoming a victim.
This term may be misleading, in that the victim is not doing anything to provoke the bullying. Rather, the circumstances are out of their control. These victims are targeted because they have difficulties, physically or with behavior. They are easy targets due to their limited abilities.
Above we have discussed bullying behavior and why it seems to present itself as problem in schools. It is just as important to distinguish bullying from other behavior, and also to dispel myths that contribute to the persistence of bullying.
Bullying is Not…
Earlier we outlined what bullying is and how to recognize it – it is just as important to know what bullying is not.
Bullying is not conflict. It is important to distinguish between conflict between two peers, and bullying behavior carried out by one.
Conflict is a struggle between two people who are generally equal. Both parties are responsible for the problem, and both parties have a chance to resolve the problem. Conflict resolution is not an appropriate strategy in a bullying situation.
Conflict versus bullying
- both sides are matched equally in terms of power
- both sides can suggest solutions with a chance of them being accepted
- either side can stop the behaviour
- both sides have some responsibility for the behaviour
- one side has more power and is misusing it
- one side is responsible for the problem or action
- fault lies solely on one side – there is no shared mea-culpa
- only one side can stop the behaviour
Bullying is also not rough play. If your child is engaged in rough play and they get hurt –that is not bullying, no matter how often it happens. The difference is the engagement of the child – they are a participant in the rough play, they are not being singled out for aggression.
Bullying is not teasing, when it is mutual. Teasing is a means to build friendship bonds, if it is affectionate and leaves both parties smiling. Playful teasing is common among peers and it should be noted that the words and phrases used today may be much different than when you were a kid!
Myths about Bullying
To understand and deal with bullying effectively, we need to dispel some myths.
- bullying is normal part of growing up – not true!
- everyone gets bullied – not true!
- bullying will stop on its own if you ignore it – not true!
- bullies have low self-esteem – not true!
- Non-physical bullying does not have lasting effects – not true!
- Kids should handle bullies on their own – not true!
Bullying is not a normal part of childhood. It increases the chances of becoming withdrawn and passive, thereby increases the chances of being bullied repeatedly.
Not everyone gets bullied. Some are easier targets for bullies than others. We will discuss characteristics of targets later.
Bullies will not stop unless they are made to stop. They will continue the behavior until there is some intervention by the victim or by authorities.
Contrary to what some may believe, bullies actually may have high self-esteem and confidence. They may be popular and socially successful. They may in fact, have gained that power and attention through bullying.
All forms of bullying, not just physical is harmful. It can lead to depression anxiety and social and educational problems.
Children cannot be expected to fight bullying on their own. If they could fight for themselves, they would not have become victims!