Bullying...How can parents help?
Bullying is an age-old problem affecting all age groups but especially developing adolescents. The middle school years are a vulnerable age for children. For perhaps the first time they allow outside influences to help shape who they are and who they want to be. Most of these influences are positive ones: parents, a close aunt or uncle, good friends, a favorite teacher, a coach, a neighbor, an older sibling, etc. However, some influences are not positive and, in fact, are counter-productive to positive emotional development. I am referring to bullies. An unfortunate reality is that while most adolescents find their identity via positive outlets, some do so by bullying. The literature is rich with explanations about why this is – low self esteem, high self-esteem, family modeling/tolerance of the behavior, immaturity, insecurity, etc. The fact is that there will always be some children (and adults) that express themselves through bullying.
Fitting in is crucial for adolescents. Many children fear that if they report a bully, this will threaten their status and put them in greater danger in the future. While this is understandable, such hesitancy is at the core of why bullying exists. Bullies thrive on secrecy. They bully children at the bus stop, in the hallways, in the locker room, etc. - all places where they have more privacy. They need to be invisible in order to remain unaccountable for their actions. However, bullies are not invisible…..you ask any middle schooler and they will tell you who the bullies are at their school. If this is true, then why aren't the known bullies dealt with? Again, the answer is secrecy. Many students refuse to report bullying. Of those who tell their parents, many of them swear their parents to secrecy. This may be a loyal response, but it makes the problem worse as the bully learns very quickly that your child is a safe target for his intimidation because no consequences ever result.
Our school staff is eager to address bullying. Students that report bullying receive immediate action. Much of our advisory and guidance curriculum is centered around this and related issues. However, we can't address what we do not know about. Secrecy ensures that no one at school knows there's a problem.
What can parents do to address bullying? A lot! My advice is to listen to your child…….not just what he says but how he acts. Your child may say things are fine at school but if you notice he is not sleeping well, is feigning illness to stay home from school, resists attending social events that he used to enjoy, or is just not himself, then you can deduct that something's not right. Talk with your child….try to uncover if someone is bothering him. Ask his friends. Talk with his teacher and ask him/her to observe your child closely for a few days.
Encourage your child to ignore little, immature things. It is not healthy for an adolescent to be obsessed with patrolling others' behavior. However, if your child tells you he is unable to ignore something – or if you see behavior changes that you can't ignore, then please act. Call school and speak with your child's advisor, teacher, Guidance Counselor, Assistant Principal or Principal. If your child is uncomfortable seeking help for bullying, please intervene. While the threat of retribution is larger than life to a middle schooler, students who expose bullying with confidence are usually left alone. Few bullies are willing to take the chance that they will get in trouble. Call school and break the code of secrecy – it will help not only your child, but everyone's child.