In the world of teasing and bullying, a world your kids probably know all too well, both bullies and victims are at risk. Our hearts go out to the victims, whose self-esteem can be decimated by persistent teasing, bullying and harassment. The research shows that many youngsters suffer for years as a result of becoming identified as a victim in their peer group. Eating disorders, and other compulsive disorders related to shame and self-esteem often have their roots in painful teasing experiences or are exacerbated by these events. But it is also important to understand that the bullies or teasers themselves are at risk in a different way. If their behavior is not challenged and they are not taught other ways to feel powerful or socially successful, they are in danger of establishing a habit of winning through intimidation. In the long run, this will cost them friends, make it difficult for them to establish and maintain intimate relationships, and may even lead to antisocial or criminal behavior. Many parents realize that this is a serious problem, but they feel helpless because they don't quite know what to do about it. It is natural, when feeling helpless, to resort to wishful thinking that the problem is not so bad or that it is normal and inevitable, or that kids will grow out of it. The problem is indeed normal and inevitable unless adults take measures to combat it. It is not safe, however, to assume that kids will grow out of it without scars.
The research and the Norwegian model:
American schools are estimated to harbor over 2 million bullies and almost 3 million victims of bullying. In one midwestern study, 76.8 % of students say they have been bullied, and 14 % of these students indicated that they experienced severe reactions to the abuse. It is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day, due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. And as to the risk for bullies themselves, young bullies carry a one-in-four chance of having a criminal record by age 30. (Statistics reported in Bullies and Victims, by Fried, S, and Fried, P. 1996)
In Norway, in 1992, an ambitious program was instituted in the elementary and middle schools to establish a culture that discouraged teasing and bullying. Parents and teachers worked together to teach attitudes and rules about teasing and bullying and to enforce them in the hallways, playgrounds, and lunchrooms where these behaviors had been largely unsupervised and uninterrupted in the past. Students were also taught to confront or report teasing and bullying rather than to participate passively as an audience. Pre and post testing demonstrated a 50% decrease in teasing and bullying as a result of this program (for details, see Bullying at School, by Dan Olweus 1993). It would be nice to think this experiment could be replicated in every school. Interested parents may want to lobby for development of school-based programs like the Norwegian experiment. But even before such programs are in place, there are things that parents can do at home and in the neighborhood.
Teaching resilience to teasing at home:
Dealing with teasing, like dealing with sex or drugs, begins with getting it out of the closet and finding a way to talk about it. First, parents have to be informed enough to feel relatively comfortable talking about it. We adults often have our own hang-ups about teasing and shame. Many of us grew up with teasing and find ourselves engaging in it reflexively with our own children. It can be a habit that is difficult to break, even after you understand that it is not helpful behavior. Guilt about this can make it uncomfortable to talk about. But talk about it we must if we are going to change things. Most kids have difficulty talking about their victimhood. We all do. So it is important to let them know that this is an experience you have shared and can understand.
To begin the conversation, it may be necessary to be alert for the right moment. When you notice signs of hurt feelings or withdrawal in your child, ask whether someone has done or said something that has made him or her feel bad. Be prepared to listen and not too quick to say that you understand. This is often difficult, because we want to help. Being interested and listening helps most. Next it is important to let them know that you don’t have the answer. If you do have the answer, keep it to yourself for a while, because the challenge is for you and your kids to discover their own answers, by working on some solutions together.
So we make a problem solving game of it. And to make it even more relevant, part of the game involves recognizing and appropriately countering teasing that goes on at home. If it feels like you are being teased or bullied, say so ("I feel like I’m being picked on"), and you get two points. If you are guilty of teasing, and you speak up about it before the victim does - and apologize, four points. Get your kids to make up the rules. They’re probably good at that. As long as you are willing to play, it will help.
The next objective to add to the game is to come up with disarming responses to teasers or bullies. This is not easy, but it is possible. There are several guidebooks published with good suggestions. Rather than trying to ignore or retaliate in response to a teaser, it may be disarming to say something like: "You could be right!" Or to gently challenge the teaser by asking, "Why are you telling me this?" or "What would you do about that if you were me?" Or perhaps even: "Great insult! Those kinds of comments usually make me feel bad. But I am learning to deal with them, and I need the practice." It is unlikely that anyone in a victim frame of mind is going to be able to come up with snappy comebacks like this on the spot. It takes practice to respond to intimidation with skill, and this is why the game can be useful if it is played at home in a safe environment and skills are developed in this way. If it works to counter real teasing from family members at home, it gains credibility as a skill to try at school.
It should be noted here that kids should not be expected to deal with physical intimidation or violent bullying on their own. They need to be given permission and encouragement to ask for help. At some ages and in some situations, they may ask for and get help from their friends (not necessarily to gang up on and overpower the bully physically, but to stand up against the bullying and witness and report it). With younger kids who are being victimized by older, bigger or stronger bullies, it is best to involve one or more adults in confronting and intervening. It is always important to encourage kids to come to their parents to help with problem solving.
The final skill that can be taught and practiced at home is that of standing up for other victims and asking your friends to stand up with you. Unless we are willing to ask for help, we are all potential victims. By finding ways to ask for support, we are spreading the culture that discourages teasing and bullying and raising the quality of life a little for everyone.