Bullying: Do’s and Don’ts for Parents

The topic of bullying has recently received a lot of attention in the media, especially due to its depiction in popular children’s and teens’ TV shows. There is rightful cause for concern to bullying, as it can have serious, destructive short-term and long-term effects on victims. However, there is an important distinction to be made between conflict, which is a normal part of childhood development in groups, and legitimate bullying. When we apply the label of bullying to an unpleasant but normal conflict situation, the topic of bullying can lose its urgency and impact in a sort of “boy who cries wolf” situation, and this can be especially dangerous for kids who are victims of actual bullying phenomena. For this reason, it is crucial for students, parents, and school officials to be able to distinguish between conflict and bullying.

Bullying: What it is

There are several criteria that must be met for acts of aggression to qualify as bullying. These include:

  • Intentional and deliberate harm. Perpetrators of bullying harm other children on purpose. Their aggression comes from a deliberate desire to hurt the victim.
  • Repetition and persistence. Rather than isolated incidents, bullying involves repeated and persistent acts of aggression toward a target. The acts are part of a pattern.
  • An imbalance of power. In a bullying dynamic, one child holds all of the power while the other child is weaker. This power can be physical, in which the bully is bigger or stronger, or social, in which the bully holds a higher social status or grade level. An imbalance of power also applies when a group of people systematically and repetitively “gangs up” on a child.

Bullying can take different forms and use different methods with which to harm another. The different forms of bullying are

  • This is the traditional idea of schoolyard bullying. Physical bullying includes acts of violence, including hitting, tripping, or pushing another. Deliberately stealing or destroying someone’s possessions also qualifies as physical bullying.
  • Verbal bullying refers to name calling, teasing, and mocking. Younger children may create cruel songs or chants to mock another, and verbal teasing in teens may present as name-calling with offensive sexual labels.
  • Social bullying can be a systematic exclusion of a certain person from a social group, convincing others to mistreat a person, and purposefully ignoring someone in order to hurt him or her.
  • This kind of bullying has come to be particularly harmful. Cyberbullying is when someone purposefully mistreats another using platforms such as texting or social media. Cyberbullying has the potential to be even more harmful than in-school bullying, in that it can occur 24/7, it is difficult to escape, and can be widely distributed using social networks for maximum damage to a victim’s reputation. Online bullies may also be more harsh behind the veil of anonymity, or go further than usual because they are unable to see the victim’s physical reaction.

In short, bullying is characterized by an imbalance of power. Bullying must be deliberate and persistent.

Conflict: How it is different from bullying?

Conflict is a commonplace occurrence in developing children and teens’ school relationships. Contrary to bullying, conflict involves a balance of power between the two parties. It is more of a typical “back and forth.” Conflict also encompasses when one child accidentally hurts others, including when harsh words happen impulsively from heated emotions. A child might also not realize that their words or actions are hurtful to others. In these situations, the perpetrator is not a bully; rather, conflict resolution can be more helpful than anti-bullying strategies.

These are some examples of normal conflict situations which can be misconstrued as bullying:

  • Accidental physical situations. Children may accidentally bump into each other, hit each other with balls during sports activities, or cause another to drop something. As long as these physical interactions are not deliberate, they should not be considered bullying.
  • Not liking someone. It is a normal part of life to be disliked by some people. Not all children will get along with yours. These situations are not bullying unless they progress to deliberate aggression.
  • Arguments or disagreements. In accordance with the previous situation, it is normal for developing children to have heated disagreements. Arguments in which a balance of power is maintained are conflict, not bullying.
  • A single joke. An innocent attempt to be funny may result in hurt feelings. Or, a deliberately unkind joke may be made in isolation without amounting to bullying.
  • An isolated incident. Schoolchildren and teens may occasionally be purposefully mean or hostile to one another; it may even escalate to violence. However, a single incident with no repetition or continued imbalance of power does not qualify as bullying.

When an unpleasant situation between children is truly just conflict, it can be better to let them resolve the struggle on their own and learn valuable conflict-resolution skills in the process. However, in the case of bullying, the unbalanced power dynamic will render the victim unable to do anything to remedy the situation. Therefore, adult intervention is usually needed to address a bullying situation and restore the victim’s sense of safety. If your child is a victim of bullying, it is best to familiarize yourself with what is a helpful reaction and what is a hurtful reaction.

If your child is bullied, do:

  • Encourage an open conversation. Let your child know that it is safe to talk to you about being bullied. Remind your child that it isn’t his or her fault, and talking to adults is a positive step to solving the problem.
  • Stay calm. Reacting from extreme anger might only increase your child’s anxiety about the situation. Model positive coping strategies for your child.
  • Write it down. Whenever your child tells you about a bullying experience, record it with the date. For school officials to intervene, it is likely they will require an accurate report of events.
  • Facilitate friendships. Your child is more likely to function better through bullying if she or he has a positive support network of friends at school. Encourage your child to form positive friendships.

If your child is bullied, do not:

  • Tell them to ignore it. Since bullies target children to do deliberate harm, simply ignoring the situation may cause the behavior to escalate. “Toughening up” will not help your child in the case of a true power imbalance.
  • Blame them. Oftentimes, a bullied child will internalize the torment and already believe it is their fault, with thoughts like “if I weren’t so stupid, they wouldn’t make fun of me.” Asking your child what they did to deserve the bullying will only cause further harm.
  • Encourage physical “solutions” or retaliation. Responding with violence is never the answer to a bullying situation. Violence will only intensify the situation and label your child as an aggressor, while taking away the opportunity to learn positive coping skills.

In the end, children aren’t born with conflict resolution skills; they need to be learned. When disagreements between equals arise, these are the opportunities for your child to learn these valuable skills to carry into adulthood. It is crucial not to mistake a back-and-forth situation as bullying. However, if your child becomes the target of persistent torment from another who is bigger, stronger, or more popular, then bullying intervention is necessary. If your child is struggling with peer conflicts, bullying, or needs support, at GroundWork, our Orlando child therapists are here to help.

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