With the tragic death of the Massachusetts high school girl forcing all of us to take long, hard look at the problem of bullying in schools, the recent attention underscores the fact that aggressor-victim dynamic has been, and probably will continue to be, a fact of school life for generations.
While I admit that I am not an expert on the subject, I’ve been on both ends of the equation more than my fair share of times throughout my youth. In light of these experiences, I can’t help but wonder if modern bullying has become more vicious and intense. With the internet, social networking, and wireless communication aiding in the assault, kids have upped the ante, with tragic consequences. Bear in mind, if we’d had access to these “tools” of communication, we would have used them with reckless abandon, as well.
The extremes we're seeing, of course, begs the question, how do things get so out of hand? Sure, kids are going to mean to each other, a quality that seems to begin early (I’ve witnessed this between our daughter and son) and carries well into adulthood, but why isn’t more being done to discourage kids from being cruel to one another?
Like most things in life, the answers are not simple and straightforward. Judging from personal experience, as well as revelations brought forth from a recent article on MSNBC.com, it may very well be that some bullies are enabled by the very people who should be discouraging cruel behavior: their parents.
The reason lies in the fact that in numerous instances, bullies excel in other areas of life, so much so that it is often easy for mom and dad to conveniently overlook or ignore an occasional social transgression (or two) on the part of their children.
In other words, many kids who are predisposed to attacking other kids are also, on some level, looked up to and even revered by their peers. They are the team captains or the popular kids whose social stature can buy them some leeway when their behavior is less than ideal. They also often possess the charisma and charm to cover their lapses in social graces, convincing adults that it was only an aberrant moment, never to happen again.
What experts are beginning to understand is that these kids, who can sometimes be class leaders, display patterns of control and aggression over other kids. These patterns of bullying do not always manifest themselves as physical violence, but rather can have a deep psychological basis, taking the form of taunting, ridicule, slander, and even verbal threats, made all the worse through the internet and social networking.
Unfortunately, victims do not always speak up. In fact, it is estimated that half of the kids never report incidences of bullying for fear of reprisal or social ostracification. When they do actually reach out, adults can either feel incapable of stepping in or do not agree with the severity of the problem. Indeed, verbal abuse and social attacks can be perceived by teachers and parents as normal behavior. In other words, “kids just being kids.”
Furthermore, some of us may see our children’s behavior as a direct reflection of ourselves, and any faults or shortcomings would represent a failure on our part. When problems occur, we would rather downplay or ignore it, thus maintaining our kid’s stellar image in our mind’s eye. The situation is complicated by the fact that, when confronted with their poor behavior, some kids have the ability to either talk their way out of any severe consequences, or simply shrug off our concerns and continue along in the same vein.
This, of course, is not doing the bully any favors, either. Studies indicate that bullies are often victims themselves, and feel that they have been dealt some injustice that validates their actions. Being a bully is also associated with certain long-term consequences, including alcoholism, drug abuse, and an increased risk of going to jail.
To protect both the bullied and the bullies, it is important for parents to talk to their kids and be on the lookout for any signs that your child is involved with bullying, either as a perpetrator or victim. If your child comes to you with a situation, listen to them and don’t treat it as if it were simple childhood dilemma that will work itself out. If there is in fact a problem, it is important for you, as a parent, to be their advocate and protector.
Only then can we avoid another tragedy like the one that happened to Phoebe Prince.
If you suspect that your child is involved in bullying, take the time to talk to them. If they decline to discuss it with you, seek out information from their friends or teachers. For more information about bullying, check out the homepage for Stop Bullying Now, a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service.