The battle against bullying

Cases of bullying — and their all too often horrific consequences – have received a lot of attention in the news recently. And for good reason: the recent rash of teen suicides as a result of bullying reveals that the bullies operating in our schoolyards and classrooms go well beyond the occasional teasing or unruly behavior usually associated with ‘kids just being kids’.

Bullying, by contrast, happens when someone intentionally hurts, scares or attacks another person — verbally or physically — over and over again, often on a daily basis.

And bullying has taken on a particularly modern twist. For kids who are being bullied, the pain often doesn’t end when they leave school, but the insults and personal attacks continue even in the safety of their homes. Increasingly, bullying is happening online or electronically — a practice known as cyberbullying .

Using the Internet, mobile phones or other cyber technology, cyber bullies employ a number of techniques such as:

-Sending mean, vulgar or threatening messages via text, email, or instant messages.

-Posting nasty, private, untrue or compromising pictures or messages about others in social networking sites, blogs, chat rooms, discussion groups or on websites.

-Using someone else’s user name to spread rumours or lies about someone.

Beyond hurt feelings

And for the victims, bullying goes way beyond hurting feelings or temporarily damaging reputations. Not surprisingly, bullied kids are more likely to struggle with their studies — when they show up at school (children who are bullied are more likely to skip classes). But the effects of constant bullying and harassment are even more serious and can lead to increased risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, alcoholism, smoking, drug use and even suicide and death.

So just how pervasive is bullying? In Canada, between 50 – 75 per cent of students report being bullied, according to the Canadian Safe School Network. This means that for every two students, one of them is being bullied, and in some cases, for every 4 students, 3 are being bullied.

And bullying is not just a problem that kids face. According to Public Safety Canada, ‘grown-up’ bullies are often responsible for workplace and sexual harassment, as well as marital and elder abuse. (See Dealing with bullies in the workplace.)

Who is most at risk?

Surveys have shown that schoolyard bullies often choose targets they perceive to be weak, unattractive or in some way, ‘different’. People with learning disabilities are often targeted, as well as racial, religious and ethnic minorities.

Also, a great deal of bullying is directed at students who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay or bisexual. In fact, the National School Climate Survey in the US (2005) found that three-quarters of the high school students surveyed heard derogatory and homophobic remarks “frequently” or “often” at school. Of the participants, 90 per cent reported hearing the term “gay” used to imply someone is stupid or something is worthless.

Among students who identified themselves as gay, 90 per cent had been bullied in the past year. Of these, 66 per cent had been verbally abused, 16 per cent physically harassed, and 8 per cent had been assaulted. Gay students reported feeling unsafe at school three times more often than non-gay students. (For an intimate look at the pain and emotional toll of bullying, see Bullying: 10 years of terror .)

Tips for busting bullies

So what can be done? Many schools have implemented anti-bullying policies, and experts say there are ways that parents, family members and friends can also help children become more bully-resistant. Here are some tips for dealing with bullies:

Keep the lines of communication open. Victims need to understand that if they are being bullied, it is not their fault. Sometimes children, and especially teens, are embarrassed to admit they are being bullied, so look for non-verbal cues as well. Signs of bullying could include coming home from school with unexplained bruises, cuts or scratches, a pattern of missing or damaged belongings, unusual anxiety or moodiness and an unexplained fear of going to school or taking part in organized activities with peers.

Take bullying seriously. Children should know that you consider persistent bullying a serious matter, not a rite of passage or something that kids should be able to settle among themselves. If the bullying is happening at school, contact the school immediately and set up a meeting to deal with the matter. Most schools have anti-bullying policies in place, so you should fully expect them to take action — and for the bullying to stop.

Talk about ways to defuse the situation. There are tactics kids can use to help them deal with bullies, experts say. These include:

— Ignore teasing by turning their heads or walking away, and try not to get upset or show any hurt feelings. At times, humour can also defuse the situation.

— Don’t respond to cyberbullying. Just as with face-to-face bullying this should be reported to the school.

— Be assertive, but not aggressive. A child certainly has the right to stand up to a bully and, for instance, say, “Stop it!” — but should not retaliate by using fists or insults. The latter can actually make the situation worse, and get your child in trouble along with the bully.

— Avoid the bully. While it may seem unfair to ask your child to change his class schedule or route to school to avoid a bully, experts say that making a plan of action can make a child feel empowered. Children can also work with teachers to devise a safety plan to ensure they avoid any unsupervised areas of school.

— Boost self-esteem. Being bullied can be devastating to self-esteem. Looks for ways to highlight your child’s talents, contributions and achievements. Community activities, classes and groups can provide opportunities to socialize and build self-confidence, particularly if a child is socially isolated at school.

— Stand up for other victims. Even if they hate bullying, bystanders often encourage it by watching, laughing or even joining in. Kids can – and should – stand together against the bullies, and they should report any incidents of bullying to an adult.

Canadian Safe School Network
Webisodes to help kids deal with bullying

Sources: Public Safety Canada; Red Cross; Canadian Safe School Network; US Department of Health and Human Resources.

Photo © Christopher O Driscoll

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