By Rick Meeves, PhD, LMFT, Regional Vice President of Western Youth Services for CRC Health Group
One need only pay slight attention to the news to realize that bullying is a very visible and chronic crisis in this country. Gone are the days of this phenomenon being confined to shoving victims in the junior high hallway or prank phone calls late at night. Today’s bullying – which Webster’s dictionary defines simply as “abusive treatment” – consists of relentless personal assaults across worldwide social media platforms that permeate much larger audiences and exist for eternity. One recent bully even sickly celebrated the victory of her victim’s demise on her social media page. Historically unprecedented. Culturally shocking.
Bullying can occur with little to no adult awareness on both sides. Social media and texting combine with immature impulsiveness to allow the intensity and secrecy of bullying to exceed anything previously possible.
What can we do to stop this behavior?
There is much evidence that higher parental support and engagement are associated with less involvement across all forms and classifications of bullying – the more involved a parent is, the less likely their child is to be a bully or get bullied. Parental involvement is necessary early and throughout our kids’ school years; it’s said that the frequency of bullying acts peaks between grades 6 and 8, and spikes during transition from one type of school to another (e.g., elementary school to middle school).
Parents also should provide and optimize opportunities that build effective emotional coping, social functioning, and general resilience in their children. Instill self-confidence in your kids at the same time as teaching them the tried-and-true golden rule of doing unto others as you’d have done unto you.
The sad fact is that bullying has persisted (even multiplied) despite legislation and many larger-system programs – including an entire awareness month – to combat it. A large degree of suggested solutions fall within the realm of structural/systemic interventions; the idea is to reduce systemic forces that facilitate bullying. Each person is invited to examine their role in supporting, perpetuating, or merely failing to combat bullying.
Unfortunately, some children and families report that these common “barrier approaches” do not seem to work for them. For bullies, seeing their victim get angry or upset and trying to retreat behind “the barrier” is seen as “winning.” This reinforces them to continue the behavior; people have a tendency to continue to play games that they win. Often times, children report that bullying increases when they have reported it, even in areas with well-developed anti-bully plans and legislation.
Structural interventions can be effective, however, when combined with training bullying victims how to beat “the game” of bullying.
Parents would be wise to teach their kids the “anti-bully attitude,” a concept derived by Izzy Kalman, a school psychologist and psychotherapist. Bully victims can learn to act nonchalant, unaffected, unoffended, and mildly bemused by their aggressor/bully. This is not the same as ignoring the bullying, but it is responding to bullying in a way that does not reinforce the bullying cycle. Basically, kids tease each other because they enjoy watching their target get upset. The more upset the target gets, the more fun it is to tease him or her. In addition to encouraging children to report bullying and then punishing bullies (the “barrier approach”), parents and educators need to teach children not to be victims in the first place by not allowing the bullies to upset them. After all, if a bully calls a kid names and the kid convincingly acts like he doesn’t care, it is the bully who will look foolish. When they aren’t winning by getting the child upset, it ceases to be fun for them, and they will move on looking for other targets. If you don’t get mad, you win. It’s that simple.
This combination of barrier methods and game training appears to be significantly more effective at reducing bullying than barrier methods alone. In addition, parental engagement – most importantly providing sufficient monitoring, guidelines, and boundaries for children’s internet and texting activities – is critical to beating the bullying war.
As always, seeking the advice of a trained mental health professional is recommended for assistance, or when efforts to deal with bullying have been exhausted.
Dr. Rick Meeves, Ph.D., LMFT, is the Regional Vice President of Western Youth Services for CRC Health Group, the nation’s largest provider of addiction treatment and related behavioral health services. Dr. Meeves oversees six of CRC’s residential and wilderness youth treatment programs and has nearly 20 years’ experience working with families and teens.