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All children get teased or taunted by other children at some point in their lives. They participate in the occasional shoving match or schoolyard scuffle. Experts say that these sporadic episodes, while uncomfortable for both kids and their parents, are normal, unavoidable pains of childhood.
Bullying, on the other hand, is extreme behavior. Although bullying is characterized by teasing and fighting, what distinguishes it from typical childhood behavior is the frequency and severity of the attacks. When a person goes beyond “normal” teasing-when people are clearly intimidated, fearful and harassed-and it is continuous-that's bullying.
Bullying usually involves an older or larger child (or several children) victimizing a single child who is incapable of defending him or herself. Although much bullying goes unreported, it is estimated that in the average school, an incident of bullying occurs once every seven minutes. Bullying occurs at about the same rate regardless of class size or school size, but, for an unknown reason, rural schools seem to have a higher rate of bullying than urban and suburban schools. Often, when bullying is reported to school officials or parents, it is not taken seriously.
Bullying is systematic. It's routine, ongoing, and can last for weeks, months, even years. According to child experts, bullying can even start among preschoolers and last throughout the high school years. Normally, though, bullying occurs and escalates when children reach middle-school age. Bullying can include verbal and physical abuse; it relies heavily on the threat-real or imagined-of violence.
All bullies, whether male or female, black or white, rich or poor, have certain things in common. They usually suffer with low self-esteem, and they may be unsuccessful academically or socially, using bullying as a way to deal with their problems. Bullies also tend to be cowards. They bully others out of sight of adults or other peers who might intervene. Bullies target children over whom they feel they have an advantage. Frequently, children who bully are themselves victims of abuse, violence, or neglect. They feel powerless in their own world, so they try to experience a sense of power by picking on a vulnerable child.
Although the stereotypical bully is male, girls engage in bullying behavior almost as often as boys. Their tactics differ, however, in that they are less visible. Boy bullies tend to resort to one-on-one physical aggression, while girls tend to bully as a group through social exclusion and the spreading of rumors. Girls who would never bully individually will often take part in group bullying activities such as “slam books”; notebooks that are circulated among the peer group, in which comments and criticisms are written about particular individuals.
Bullying can begin at a very early age. Up until about the age of seven, bullies appear to choose their victims at random. After that, they single out specific children to torment on a regular basis. Nearly twice as much bullying goes on in grades two to four as in grades six to eight. As bullies grow older, they tend to use less physical abuse and more verbal abuse.
Until about sixth grade, bullies are not necessarily unpopular. They average two or three friends, and other children seem to admire them for their physical toughness. By high school, however, their social acceptance has diminished to the point that their only “friends” are other bullies.
Interestingly, victims and bullies have much in common. Like the bully, the victim also tends to be a child who is an outsider in the social sense. Bullies target children who are vulnerable or who are different in some way. The victim may have a physical or mental disability, may have a reputation for being a “wimp”, or may have embarrassing personal or family problems that are known throughout the community.
In general, children who become the targets of bullies have a negative view of violence and go out of their way to avoid conflict. They tend to be “loners” who exhibit signs of vulnerability before being singled out by a bully. Being victimized leads these children-who are already lacking in self-esteem-to feel more anxious, and thereby increase their vulnerability. Being the target of a bully leads to social isolation and rejection by peers, and victims tend to internalize others' negative views, further eroding their self-esteem.
When his six year old son, Reece, came to him complaining of being taunted by bullies at his suburban New York pre-school, Terry Williams' survival reflex shifted into high gear. “Well, if you don't hit him back, you get what you deserve,” he fired back at his son. Gazing at his father with big brown eyes full of wonderment, Reece retorted, “No, Daddy. Mommy says fighting is wrong.” Humbled, the elder Williams quickly realized that instead of imparting some sound fatherly wisdom, he'd simply fallen back on the machismo posturing that had seen him through his own urban childhood experience. Williams is not alone. For many parents, the stand-up-for-yourself message is like an old school tune-familiar and resonating with schoolyard memories. In African-American households, especially, physical aggression has been widely regarded as the best assurance against being victimized.
Child psychologists say fighting back is not good advice. And today-when the weapons of choice are not sticks and stones, but knives and guns-a child can end up dead if he takes brute-force retaliation to heart. Suggesting your child fight back also implicitly tells her to take matters into her own hands, a message she might internalize and employ whenever she feels overwhelmed by a situation.
Chances are that if a bully is intimidating your child, other kids are being victimized as well. Parents need to take advantage of every resource available-many of them free, including school counselors and social workers. Often, even communicating with other parents can bring about a workable solution. Peer-parent counseling, or parents just talking to other parents about issues their children face can sometimes be the most effective way to resolve problems. All children should be given regular opportunities to discuss bullying and ways to deal with bullies. In role-playing exercises, for example, children can practice saying, “Leave me alone” and walking away.
Children can be taught simple measures to lessen the likelihood of becoming the target of a bully. Looking people in the eye, speaking up, and standing straight are just a few behaviors that communicate self-confidence. To build children's confidence, experts encourage families to do some role playing at home. Children who tend to be loners (potential targets of bullies) can be paired up with socially competent “models.” Some children need a little help learning how to make friends.
Because bullies are most likely to strike during unsupervised times, such as recess, children should be provided with as much structured activity as possible.
As parents, you can't be with your child every second to ward off bully attacks. Experts say you can teach your children how to effectively handle themselves and the situation if they become a victim of bullying:
Once again, the remote is wrapped in the pudgy clutches of your inquisitive toddler. “No, no, pumpkin,” you warn, seizing the device. But in response, your son stomps his foot, shouts and snatches it back. “You go, boy!”, says his dad, beaming at junior's show of strength. Cute? Hardly. Even as early as 1 or 2 years of age, kids learn how to get what they want.
During the toddler stage, all children occasionally test their parents and peers with physical or verbal outbursts. But if your toddler repeatedly acts out and gets away with it, child experts agree that your child may likely become a bully.
Bullying doesn't just happen. It is a process of parental approval (as in the above example), mixed messages to the child from adults, and the child being intimidated themselves throughout the early stages of life. However, it is never too late to make changes in a child who is bullying others.
Following are some do's and don'ts:
Evidence indicates that bullying is not a phase a child will outgrow. In a long-term study of more than 500 children, University of Michigan researchers discovered that children who were viewed as the most aggressive by their peers at age eight grew up to commit more (and more serious) crimes as adults. Other studies indicate that, as adults, bullies are far more likely to abuse their spouses and children.