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Bullying Basics

How Would You Define Bullying?

I love the definition provided by author Barbara Coloroso in her book, The Bully, the Bullied and the Not-So-Innocent Bystander. She describes it as “arrogance in action” and “contempt” for another person who is deemed unworthy of one’s consideration. What makes bullying different from the normal conflicts kids have with one another is the fact that bullying is comprised of the following key elements: the intent to harm; an imbalance of power; repeated aggression and/or the threat of further aggression.

How can I help my child understand what bullying is and isn’t?
First and foremost, it’s important for kids (and adults who work with them) to understand that not all hurtful behavior is bullying. I love how this one school I visited in Wisconsin helped their school community understand the different tiers of hurtful behavior:

  • When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that's RUDE.
  • When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that's MEAN.
  • When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it- even when you tell them to stop or show them that you're upset—that's BULLYING.


Is Bullying A Learned Behavior?

Yes it is, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Aggressors, therefore, should not be looked upon as the devil incarnate; rather, they are children who learned anti-social behavior at home, in school, or elsewhere in their social environment. And because it is learned, experts say it can be “un-learned.” The older the aggressor, the more difficult it is to change his/her/their bullying ways—all the more reason to address this issue sooner, when bullying starts at a younger age.

What Are The Different Types Of Bullying?

Physical aggression is the use of force to physically harm others. Relational aggression is the use of relationships to directly or indirectly manipulate and hurt others. Verbal aggression is the use of words (threats, name-calling, teasing, etc.) to taunt and harass others. Cyberbullying is basically the use of technology as a tool to be relationally aggressive. When children are mean to multiple people or publicly post hurtful comments online that are viewed by many, they are creating a repeated pattern of meanness, which can cross the line into bullying.

What Do You Think Is The Crux Of This Bullying Problem?

I think it often boils down to the lack of empathy—the ability to know what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes AND to have compassion for another person's pain and suffering. Kids need to understand that their behaviors affect others. They also need to feel that other people’s feelings have value and are worth their consideration. The more empathy and compassion children feel for their peers, the less room there is in their hearts for contempt and disregard for others’ feelings.

Is Bullying A Growing Epidemic?

According to Internet safety advocates and experts, most youth aren’t bullying their peers. That’s not to say that bullying isn’t a significant issue. The minority of kids who are bullying can cause real harm to both the targets of bullying AND the many bystanders who witness the bullying. Because most youth are decent, caring, and responsible when it comes to how they treat others, let your children know that you expect no less from them.

What Can We Parents Do To Help Our Children?

It is our job as caring, responsible parents to be constant teachers and role models when it comes to fostering empathy and positive social behavior. So if you don’t want your child to be highly critical and judgmental of others, try not to criticize your neighbor in front of your kids. And if you don’t want your child to share with friends other children’s confidences, don’t gossip about your neighbor’s personal life to your friends. Because we’re all works in progress, we need to view our children’s and our own social digressions as teachable moments through which we can learn from our mistakes and move forward.

Also understand that every child plays a role in a bullying incident: you have the aggressor, the target and the bystander (the witness/onlooker of the bullying incident). When a bullying incident takes place, you need to help your child identify the role he/she/they played in that incident and how his/her/their behavior affects the outcome of the incident. Ask your child: What happened? What role did you play in what happened? What did you learn from that experience? What would you do differently next time so the outcome wouldn’t be harmful to others? And if your child is the one who caused the hurtful behavior, ask what he/she/they can now do to make up for that hurt.

What Can I Do If My Child Bullies Others?

This question, as well as the next question, "What can I do if my child is being bullied?" are two of the most frequently asked questions I hear from parents. They are also the most difficult questions to adequately address in this particular limited format. With that said, here are my general thoughts: First and foremost, we must hold our children accountable for their bullying behavior. They need to take responsibility for their actions. Kids who bully need to show they're sorry by making the effort to right their wrongs.

Many experts also emphasize the importance of positive discipline with moral feeling—not coercive, punitive measures—when addressing a child’s aggressive behavior. That way, parents and teachers can help a child make better choices that aren’t hurtful to themselves and others. Simply speaking, we must treat bullying incidences with an eye towards cause and effect; that is, whenever your child intentionally chooses to insult, exclude, hit or threaten others, he/she/they will consistently face disciplinary consequences that are predictable, fair and immediate. And those consequences will escalate if the bullying behavior continues. Stan Davis, anti-bullying expert and author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies For Reducing Bullying and Empowering Bystanders, stresses the need for children to “learn that their consequences are a result of their own actions, rather than a statement of how the adult feels about them or an arbitrary punishment.”

What Can I Do If My Child Is Being Bullied?

Below are some helpful tips to share with your child:

  • Know that it’s not your fault.
  • Know that you don’t deserve it.
  • Tell the child who is bullying you to stop, only if you feel safe doing so.
  • Remove yourself from the situation, if possible.
  • Get help from people you trust. If they give you advice and it’s not working, let them know and see if they can work with you and other adults to come up with more effective solutions.
  • Hang out with people who let you be you.
  • Use harmless humor to deflect bullying.
  • Don’t respond by wearing that bully hat yourself.

What Would Be Helpful For Children Who Witnesses A Bullying Incident?

Below are some helpful suggestions to encourage bystanders in a positive way:

  • Notice the bullying event.
  • Don’t encourage the bullying by laughing, clapping, or joining in.
  • Care. Try to put yourself in the target’s shoes. Imagine how he/she/they must be feeling.
  • Tell the child who is bullying to stop, only if you feel safe doing so. This is best done with other students to help you. If it’s not safe for you to do this alone, get help from an adult you trust.
  • Comfort the target who has just been bullied. It can be done at the moment or afterwards in private if you’re too embarrassed or don't feel safe doing so. Let the target know how unfair the bullying was.
  • Include them in your activity or group.
  • Whenever necessary, get help from someone you trust. Tell an adult who will take your concerns seriously and keep your confidentiality in the reporting process to protect you from risk of retaliation by the child who is bullying others.
  • Report online bullying to the service provider or through the social network’s reporting system.

What Can We Adults Do To Create Safer Social Climates In Schools?

Many experts recommend the following:

  • Raise community awareness about bullying among school staff, students, and parents.
  • Promote school-wide, nonviolent strategies to address bullying.
  • Develop clear rules against bullying and enforce those rules in a CONSISTENT manner.
  • Employ predictable and escalating consequences for aggression.
  • Provide aggressors with opportunities for restitution/restorative justice.
  • Empower bystanders to support the target and discourage the bullying.
  • Protect targets and bystanders from further retaliation by aggressors.
  • Provide support for victimized children.
  • Monitor and follow-up to ensure bullying is not continuing.

IMPORTANT: For more information or assistance if your child is the aggressor, target, or bystander in a bullying incident, go to the resources web page for a list of organizations, websites, and recommended readings as your starting point.