They can be stopped, but it takes a village.
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009, at 12:47 PM
Let me take care of it. Another common and completely understandable parental response is to call the parent of the bully, explain what's going on, and try to get that parent to control the behavior. Predictably, the parent of the bully often becomes defensive and an impasse is soon reached. But even if you did persuade the bully's parent to cooperate, it probably wouldn't make much difference. The research shows that a bully's parent usually can't control their kid. Remember, bullying depends heavily on context, and bullies pick the context by getting the victim alone, or in front of bystanders who won't intervene. So it's hard to work on that context from afar, whether you're the parent of the victim or the parent of the bully.
Some parents are tempted to kick the bully's ass themselves. Taking matters into your own hands might be satisfying while it lasted (to the extent that you find pleasure and honor in beating up kids), but it's illegal and wrong, and it would probably do more harm than good. Mostly you're modeling for the bully yet another example of the strong enforcing their will on the weak in a context where adults can't intervene—because if you do it in front of adults, of course, they'll probably call the cops when you start tuning up the bully. Not only is going vigilante unlikely to work, you're likely to get into expensive trouble with the law and become an unfortunate legend at your son or daughter's school, for which they will be mocked for years to come.
Let the teacher take care of it. This is a reasonable, measured response, and involving the school is a necessary piece of a larger comprehensive response that can be effective (see below), but just calling a teacher or two is probably not going to help much. Remember, the definition of bullying is that it's taking place outside adult supervision and that any bystanders are too apathetic or intimidated to come forward—or they're implicated in the bullying themselves. As an institution governed by rules, a school can't control what it can't "see," and bullies usually develop a feel for contexts that remain invisible to the authorities—dead spots in the field of adult supervision. It's also difficult for individual teachers or administrators, busy as they already are with their official duties, to consistently go out of their way to police such dead spots. So talking to a teacher or two and insisting that the school take care of the problem, while it's a step in the right direction, probably won't solve it.
If those responses won't help, what should you do?
1) Find out what's going on. The first step is to find out whether your child is being bullied. That can be hard to do. Approximately 30 percent of victims tell no one about the bullying, and if the child tells someone it is likely to be a peer rather than you, so it's important to make a habit of asking casually about school, expressing interest in what happened during the day, and asking if anything happened that was particularly unpleasant or pleasant. You need to keep the conversation low-key and resist the standard parental impulse to move quickly to a SERE interrogation format, which will make it less likely that your child will talk about what's going on. Try to ask essay questions to promote elaboration and dialogue ("Tell me what you liked about class today") rather than true/false questions ("Did anything go wrong at school?"). During these chats, if you find yourself saying, "I want to know because I love you," then you're probably pressing too hard.
Chances are that the bullying has been going on for a while before you do find out about it, and chances are that your child will not readily volunteer information about it. There are warning signs to look for. Some are the usual ones that could indicate any of several problems: Your child is moodier and more withdrawn than usual, shows signs of anxiety about school, avoids talking about the day, has sleep problems. Some warning signs will be more specific to being bullied: returning home with cuts and bruises or torn clothes, asking for stolen or lost items to be replaced, reporting losing money you gave him for a special purpose at school.
2) Be careful not to blame the child for being bullied. As obvious as this sounds, both parents and peers are likely to treat the victim as if she brought the bullying upon herself. Yes, it is true that certain psychological characteristics (e.g., shyness), physical characteristics (e.g., something visibly out of the norm), and personality or character traits (e.g., not likely to retaliate with physical aggression) increase the likelihood of being a victim. However, the parental version can be harsh: "If you weren't so mopey all the time, nobody would pick on you." Even if it's true, the characterization is unconstructive and actively harmful. On the positive side of this, hug and comfort your child and convey how great it was for her to talk to you about an important problem.
3) Problem-solve with your child. Problem solving is a more precise term than you might think—a procedure in psychology that has been well studied. It consists of first identifying and stating the problem ("So, Jack is picking on you at recess ...") and then prompting and encouraging the identification of potential strategies or solutions ("So, what are some things you/we might do?"). One reasonable goal would be to identify two or three possible ways of handling the situation or general approaches to the problem. Bear in mind that the objective here is to reduce or eliminate the bully's opportunities to intimidate your child in a place where no adults are watching—so you can work on doing more to stay within the range of adult supervision, for instance, or to minimize exposure in unsupervised places. For each strategy, identify what its consequences might be. ("OK, one strategy is to go to the teacher. If you went to the teacher, what would happen?") Talk out each strategy and its potential results. When you have identified two or three, select together which might be the best and discuss why. This trains your child in a critical process as well as helping to identify a realistic solution that your child is likely to buy into, which increases its chance of being effective.
Problem solving with your child is very different from dispensing the solution to him. In a typical conversation about a serious problem, the parent—who has most of the experience, authority, control, and responsibility for the well-being of the family—moves to the solution right away and hands it down to the child. Problem solving teaches a different way of coping with and handling interpersonal problems. The benefits extend across time from one emergent situation to the next. If the child cannot think of a solution at first, you can pose one in an open-ended way: "What do you think about going to the teacher?" With practice, the child will generate more solutions and consequences.
4) Help mobilize an effective strategy for dealing with bullying, which means involving the entire school, including administration, teachers, and peers. There's a history to this finding. Although bullying is an enduring feature of human (and other animal) interactions, effective programs to deal with it have appeared only relatively recently. The current phase of addressing bullying began in Norway in the 1980s with a program devoted to reducing bullying in the entire country. Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen, sometimes called the "father of bullying research," developed a program that involved parents, teachers, and peers throughout Norway. The program was well-conducted, carefully evaluated in research, and significantly reduced bullying. It has been viewed as a model and adopted in other countries—including the United States, where many schools employ variants of it. The original program in Norway and its various extensions and refinements have shown reductions in bullying and anti-social behavior more generally (vandalism, theft, truancy), improved order and discipline and positive social relations at school, improved student satisfaction with school life, and fostered more positive attitudes toward school.
The program is broad in changing the climate of the school as well as carrying out concrete procedures to support elimination of bullying. Key ingredients include:
- Increasing awareness of bullying among parents, teachers, and children—with meetings to disseminate information but also special meetings as needed with parents of bullies and victims.
- Changing the school environment by giving teachers incentive and opportunity to be more supportive and involved with the students.
- Making bullying a key theme—e.g., in explicit policy, in regular class meetings with children.
- Rewriting classroom rules to convey clearly that bullying is not tolerated.
- Having the teacher keep an eye on past victims.
- Administering anonymous student questionnaires and otherwise tracking bullying—ongoing monitoring and evaluation.
- Using buttons, posters, and mailings to keep all involved and to keep the message salient.
- Using interviews with students to continue the educational process and evaluation of the program.
You can't make all that happen, not by yourself. But you can push the school community to make it happen, and schools all across the country have proved to be remarkably responsive to bullying. Sometimes it takes a public incident—a scare or even a tragedy—to mobilize the will to address bullying in a particular school community, but sometimes all it takes is an active parent or two to get the conversation started. So, even while you learn more about bullying and its prevention and problem-solve with your child to minimize the bully's effect on daily life, you can urge not only your child's teachers but also guidance counselors, the principal, and other parents to mobilize to deal with bullying on a schoolwide basis, which is the only way to truly deal with it once and for all.
Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.