Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
March 31 2010 2:50 PM

Bullies

They can be stopped, but it takes a village.

(Continued from Page 1)

Because a bully's success depends heavily on context, attempts to prevent bullying should concentrate primarily on changing the context rather than directly addressing the victim's or the bully's behavior. With that in mind, let's consider why those four common-sense responses won't help much:

Stand up to a bully. The time-honored assumption is that if your child cleans a bully's clock once, or merely shows himself willing to try, the display of bravery will activate the bully's innate cowardice or possibly his latent capacity to respect a worthy opponent. Either way, he'll leave your child alone. It would be nice if life worked this way—that is, if it were like a movie starring Harrison Ford as your child—but it usually doesn't. Generally, urging your child to stand up to a bully is not an effective strategy. (Some readers will now be eager to share stirring success stories that prove standing up to a bully really does work—either personal experiences or friend-of-a-friend urban legends or wholly imaginary elegies for a lost golden age of American pluck that is even now receding into the romantic mists of time. Those already getting up steam for such a post in the Fray can view a handy template to work from.)

One hallmark of a bully is a sophisticated ability to pick victims who won't put up a fight. When you urge your child to stand up to a bully, you're asking him to do something that the bully already figured out he was unlikely to do. That's why the bully picked him in the first place. Bullies tend to choose victims who are socially withdrawn, seem anxious or fearful, are nervous in new situations, or have some physical characteristic that might make them more vulnerable. (But not all victims are physically vulnerable. Some are not likely to resort to physical retaliation for other reasons—because they find violence distasteful, for instance, or regard Kwai Chang Caine as a role model.) By the time you're finding out about it, the bullying has probably gone on long enough to reinforce the roles of bully and victim through repetition. You're asking your child to buck very long odds. You might be right—your child might be the exceptional victim who proves the bully's judgment wrong and pushes back against the grain of the reinforced pattern of victimization—but chances are you're not.

Just ignore it. Some parents try to impress upon their child that there will always be a bully of one kind or another in life, and one might as well learn to cope with that fact. The best thing one can do, they say, is avoid and ignore him. If it worked, this would be a simple solution, but bullies are hard to avoid. They show a kind of genius for catching their victims in unsupervised settings, and they are at least as clever in seeking and finding their victims as the victims may be in hiding. And bullying should not be ignored. In fact, one condition that allows it to continue is that bystanders ignore it or choose not to report it. In any case, bullies typically don't allow victims to ignore them. The gratification they derive from the victim's submissiveness is so great that they'll escalate their attacks to elicit it. By asking your child to ignore a bully, you're asking her to consent to a lot more reinforcement in the role of being the victim. The research tells us that nothing good can come of that: Victims are lonelier than their peers, have higher anxiety and depression, feel vengeful, have more physical (somatic) symptoms, and are at increased risk for suicide after being bullied.

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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.