While bullying may seem commonplace, it is not a rite of passage, says Dr. Kimberly Hall, Mississippi State professor and behavior expert.
“As adults, we have the power to stop it, and we must!” she said.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Education released the first federal definition of bullying in 2014. The definition includes:
• unwanted aggressive behavior
• observed or perceived power imbalance
• repetition or high likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors
An incident can be bullying or another type of aggressive behavior, such as one-time physical fights, online arguments, or incidents between adults.
Some bullying actions can fall into criminal categories, such as harassment, hazing or assault. Cyberbullying can extend the bullying long after the victim has gotten out of school. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else.
For adults worried whether a child is being bullied, Hall said any behavior change in a child could be a sign.
“If a quiet, reserved child suddenly becomes more angry, has outbursts, cries often, then that behavior change needs to be investigated,” she said. “Likewise, if a child who is typically happy or outgoing suddenly becomes withdrawn or unhappy, bullying could be an issue.”
Youths who are bullies don’t fit into a single profile, according to the Department of Education. Youth who bully can be either well connected socially or marginalized, and may be bullied by others as well. Similarly, those who are bullied sometimes bully others.
Hall noted that most children don’t tell anyone about being bullied.
“Often this is due to fear that the bullying will get worse, but sometimes it can also be that they are embarrassed,” she said.
It is important for the children to feel that they can talk about bullying in a safe environment. Bullying prevention approaches that show the most promise, approach the problem from many angles, the US Department of Education says. They involve the entire school community in creating a culture of respect.
“It is important for teachers and parents to create safe open communication with children so that they are very comfortable confiding in you,” Hall said. “If a student does report bullying to you, it is also important that you do not overreact in front of the student.”
She suggests telling the child that they should never be treated that way and that you are going to think of a way to help.
Parents can play a key role in preventing and responding to bullying, Hall said.
“If a child seems to display more aggressive behavior towards their peers, then there is a strong likelihood that they could be bullying others,” she said. “Additionally, if a child is always getting their way — always playing the game he/she wants, peers are always doing what he/she wants, etc. — then that could be another strong indicator.”
Cyberbullying often requires different strategies than in-person bullying. Both require documentation and notification of the authorities. Tell kids that they can’t hide behind the words they type and the images they post. Hurtful messages not only make the target feel bad, but also make the sender look bad. They can bring scorn from peers and punishment from authorities.
In the case of cyberbullying, the Federal Trades Commission, which regulates the Internet in the U.S., suggests that parents not react to the bully. Encourage the victim to help save evidence or talk about it. Adults can also protect the child’s profile, by asking sites to remove offensive posts. The bully can also be blocked or deleted off contact lists.
Parents should immediately intervene when they see their child displaying aggressive behavior toward anyone.
“The parent needs to tell the child to stop, call him/her over for a private conversation, and then discuss why the behavior is not appropriate and that it will not be tolerated,” Hall said.
If the child continues to exhibit inappropriate behavior, the parent should implement a consequence.
Parents should also model positive social skills for their children, Hall said.
“If they hear a parent talking bad about another adult, or saying aggressive things about another adult, then they interpret this as acceptable behavior, even though the parent may just be blowing off steam,” she said. “It is important to remember that children are always watching their parents and will imitate what they see, not what they are told.”