During a recent flight that I took from Charlotte to Phoenix, one of my seatmates who was a neonatal unit nurse told me a troubling story about her older brother.
She said her brother was a brilliant, functional alcoholic: one who, unfortunately, was never able to recover from a traumatic experience that happened in the first grade.
Her brother was using the school restroom one day, when an older child suddenly assaulted him. The bully kicked him with great force—such force that he drove the victim’s testicles so far inward that the child needed surgery.
When the victim’s irate parents met with the school principal, they did not receive any empathy. Instead, the principal had minimized their concerns.
Even after the medical treatment had “corrected” the first grader’s physical wounds, the psychological and emotional wounds still lingered. Although he’d been a high achiever when he started school, after the attack occurred, he lost interest in school and performed beneath his potential.
At the time when the nurse had shared the story with me, he was working as a clerk at a local grocery store. But each weekend, his frustrated mother and sister had to rescue him from some ordeal or clean up a mess that was caused by his frequent alcohol-induced outbursts.
Most cases of school bullying aren’t as extreme as this. But bullying is a common problem that can occur in any place including the workplace, places of worship, homes and schools (including school routes).
Whereas adults can also be victims of bullying (through domestic violence, elder abuse, sexual harassment, abuse of authority and the like), children are more likely to be bullied because they have fewer resources and skills to protect themselves from harm than most adults have. In other words, bullied children are an extremely vulnerable population.
The following sections explain the definitions, types, statistics, causes and effects of bullying. There are also provided recommendations for parents and educators, as well as links to additional resources.
What is bullying?
In its definition of bullying, the U.S. Department of Education states:
Bullying includes students being made fun of, called names, or insulted; being the subject of rumors; being threatened with harm; being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; being pressured into doing things they did not want to do; being excluded from activities on purpose; and having property destroyed on purpose.
This is how bullying is defined according to the National Child Trends Data Bank:
Bullying, defined, is repeated interpersonal behavior, typically between children with unequal power, which is intended to do physical or psychological harm, [and] can lead to other negative outcomes for both the bully and the victim. Bullying itself can take different forms: physical coercion, hostile teasing or emotional bullying, or harassment via the Internet.
How many people are affected?
It’s difficult to determine the exact number or percentage of students who are being bullied at school, because most related research is based on the experiences of older students. As a result, the number of younger students (such as the first grader in my story) is usually excluded from related statistics. This is especially concerning because the younger the child, the greater their vulnerability to certain types of bullying.
However, the National Center for Education Statistics has provided some insight into the issue:
In 2013, about 22 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being bullied at school during the school year. Of students ages 12–18, about 14 percent reported that they were made fun of, called names, or insulted; 13 percent reported being the subject of rumors; and 6 percent reported that they were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on. In addition, of those students who reported some sort of physical bullying, about a fifth of them reported an injury as a result.
Some additional points of research show bullying as it relates to minority groups:
- White students (24 percent) were more likely to say that they had been bullied at school or “cyberbullied anywhere” than Black students (20 percent), and Hispanic students (19 percent). Asian students (9 percent) were less likely than any other racial or ethnic group to say that they had been bullied at school.
- The type of bullying that students are more likely to experience varies by age group.
- Female students are more likely than males to be victims of all types of bullying.
- Urban students are more likely to be fearful of being bullied than suburban or rural students.
- Public school students are more likely to be fearful of being bullied than students attending private schools.
- Students with disabilities and LGBTQ students have a higher risk of being bullied than non-LGBTQ students.
But there is some good news. According to National Center for Education Statistics, the number of older students who reported feeling unsafe at school has declined from 28 percent in 2005 to 22 percent in 2013. This decline is due in large part to the intensive anti-bullying efforts by the U.S. Department of Education and other organizations.
The causes & effects of bullying
Children who become bullies tend to have social and/or emotional problems that they attempt to project onto other children.
These problems may include but are not limited to abuse at home, ongoing exposure to violence or aggression at home, problems adjusting at school or following instructions, difficulty bonding with their peers, lack of empathy for others, and substance abuse. Furthermore, some bullies have been the victims of bullying by other peers as well.
As the nurse’s story of her “brilliant alcoholic” brother illustrates, bullying can have short-term and long-term effects on both its victims and perpetrators. If adults do not intervene early enough, perpetrators may experience problems at school and even possibly end up in the criminal justice system. Effects on victims include:
- Health issues
- Chronic fear
- Absenteeism from school
- Bringing weapons to school
- Dropping out of school
- A less likelihood to attend college
- Suicide or suicide attempts
What should parents of bullies do?
In order to protect children from bullying, parents and guardians must be proactive. Furthermore, both the parents of bullied children and the parents of perpetrators have a moral responsibility to take action.
In terms of what parents of bullies can do, according to medical experts, “Bullying behavior is a ‘red flag’ that a child has not learned to control his or her aggression. A child who bullies needs counseling to learn healthy ways to interact with people.” In addition to seeking counseling, parents of bullies can:
- Make sure that your child is not exposed to violence or aggression at home
- Do not minimize or downplay bullying behavior by your child
- Hold your child accountable for misbehavior
- Help your child become more empathetic by modeling empathy
- Pay attention to warning signs of bullying such as if your child initiates fights, refuses to accept responsibility for actions, hangs around bullies, and frequently misbehaves at school
- Hold your child accountable for treating others respectfully
What should parents of victims do?
There are many ways that parents of bullied children can help their children. Stopbullying.gov’s website contains numerous resources such as questions, guides, and anti-bullying videos that parents can view with their children.
In addition to listening to your children, parents should take complaints seriously, contact school and other authorities, and work with them on self-protection strategies. Parents should also learn to be aware of the aforementioned warning signs.
Stopbullying.gov provided the following additional warning signs:
- Unexplainable injuries
- Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
- Changes in eating habits
- Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of hopelessness or decreased self-esteem
- Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide
How educators play a role
Educators can and must play an instrumental role in identifying and preventing bullying.
Classroom teachers can prevent bullying by making the classroom a safe haven for all students, including anti-bullying language in class rules, holding students accountable for treating one another respectfully, taking seriously any complaints and observations, not shifting blame to victims, and notifying parents and school officials when incidents do occur.
It’s also important to embed conflict-resolution skills in lesson plans and assign anti-bullying reading and writing assignments, projects, and presentations that are designed to promote social and emotional development.
For additional resources for educators, please visit StopBullying.gov.
- Child Trends Data Bank, Bullying Indicators on Children and Youth
- Children’s Safety Network, Bullying Prevention: 2015 Resource Guide
- National Center for Education Statistics on Bullying
- StopBullying.gov, Webinar Series on National Academies Report: Key Findings
- StopBullying.gov, Warning Signs
- U.S. Department of Education, Reports of Bullying and Other Unfavorable Conditions at School
- WebMED, Bullying – Characteristics of Children Who Bully
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