Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bullying: Not just playground scuffles

Bully.  The word used to bring forth images of boys being stuffed in lockers, of lunch money being extorted, and of scuffles on the playground.  In recent years this has changed, and new terms associated with bullying have emerged—cyberbullying and peer-abuse, for example.  Whatever image the term may conjure for you, most adults can agree that the consequences can be painful.

Bullying does not happen just to kids, nor just to males.  It appears across the age-span and in human societies across the planet. Bullying involves an imbalance of power and repeated incidents. The attacks can be verbal, physical, or emotional, but to fit what most people agree meets the definition of bullying, the behavior must cause intimidation or fear in the targeted person.

The consequences of being bullied can be extreme (death).  Suicides where bullying has played a role have made headlines across the globe.  In fact, it was the deaths of three teens in Norway that led Dan Olweus to pilot his now famous Olweus Bullying Prevention program back in the 1980's.  Not all of those who are bullied will be pushed to these extremes, but many adults still bear the emotional scars of bullying that occurred in their childhood.

So, what can we—as a community that cares about our youth—do about bullying?   Many things!  We can learn more about the types of bullying young people may be exposed to.  For example, if you didn't grow up with social media and your own email account, you may not fully understand the implications of the viral nature of the web and the terrible emotional consequences that can result from having a secret posted publicly, a photo taken in the locker room emailed to the student body, or constant text message threats.  If you were part of the "in" crowd in school, you  may not understand the damaging nature of social exclusion and how this subtle form of bullying can effect children.

We can talk to our children about their relationships and what their experiences with their peers are like.  This needs to be an ongoing and open dialog if it is to be successful...walking into your middle schooler's room after you read this and asking them if they have been bullied probably won't be effective.  Talking over dinner about friends and learning more about their social circles might shed more light on their experiences.

Research on bullying tells us that one of the most important things we can do is to model kindness and compassion towards others.  Adults need to talk to children about how hurtful bullying behaviors can be, and they need to be explicit about standards for how we should behave towards one another.

Bullying is not just something that schools need to deal with.  With education and persistence, we can all become involved to curb this behavior and help our young people navigate adolescence and childhood with fewer scars—and to arrive at adulthood with a firm knowledge that the community really does care.

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