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Our Children Are Being Bullied. What Can We Do About It? “Plenty,” Says Our Expert.

September 8, 2017

Remember Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter books and films? Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters? Biff Tannen from Back to the Future?

That’s right: Fictional bullies who tormented fictional kids. But real kids will tell you that real bullies exist, too - in their schools and neighborhoods, on their playgrounds and social media sites, and even in their own homes.

The good news is that no one needs a magic wand, fairy godmother, time-traveling car, or other supernatural forces to make them go away.

“Children have access to tools that will help them take back control over the bullying,” says Anne Stefanov. “But they will need help from their parents, peers, and other adults to identify, practice, and be comfortable using those tools. We all can help.”

Anne is one of eight therapists with the Family And Community Treatment (FACT) program at Family & Children Services. FACT is an intensive home-based treatment service that works with the family of a youth experiencing a serious emotional disturbance and having difficulties in multiple areas of life. Services may include individual, group, family, couples and play therapy, parenting education and support, crisis intervention, advocacy and referrals to community supports.

FACT services are provided through a contract with Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in Kalamazoo County and Summit Pointe in Calhoun County. They build on youths’ and families’ strengths to promote healthy family functioning.

Anne and her FACT colleagues help many kids and families confront bullying. “We do it by ‘normalizing’ it. By that, I mean getting it out in the open, talking about it, letting everyone involved know that it’s common behavior, they are not alone, and there are proven ways to combat it.”

There are three types of bullying: physical, relational (or social) and verbal. Bullying of any type can occur anywhere and to any child. Research shows that children who are bullied are more likely to struggle in school and skip class. They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, be depressed, and may be at higher risk of suicide

The Counseling Center

Bullying is a widely researched phenomenon. Statistics and info from numerous government, university, and independent sources abound online. Here are only a few stats from NoBullying.com and other sources.

  • One in four school kids report being bullied, from elementary through high school. Middle school is the worst, with 44% reporting bullying compared to 20% each for elementary and high schools.
  • LGBTQ students experience worse bullying, with upwards of 90% reporting incidents.
  • More than 160,000 students stay home from school on any given day because they are afraid of being bullied.
  • More than 280,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools every month.
  • Every seven minutes on the playground, a child is bullied. In 85% of the cases there is no intervention; adult intervention only occurs in about one-quarter of these cases.
  • 75% of school shooting incidents have been linked to bullying in which the shooters were bullied.
  • Nearly 70% of students feel that schools are ineffective at dealing with bullying.
  • 70% of teens have seen bullying in their schools.
  • At least 20% of students admit performing actions that could be taken as bullying.
  • Only about 10% of all bullying cases are estimated to be reported.
  • Male bullies are nearly four times as likely as nonbullies to grow up to physically or sexually abuse their female partners.

No single factor puts a child at risk of being bullied or bullying others. Bullying can happen in cities, suburbs, or small towns. Depending on the environment, some groups – LGBTQ youth, youth with learning or physical disabilities, and socially isolated youth – may be at an increased risk of being bullied.

“Bullies aren’t born, they’re taught,” Anne says, “often by those who have been bullied in their own lives by other adults and children.” Homes where physical punishment, domestic violence, and child abuse are the norm, often create children who learn to derive satisfaction from making others suffer and singling out people who are “different” to bully.

A UCLA study on bullying and middle schoolers found that bullying boosts the social status and popularity of students. In the study, nearly 1,900 students at 11 Los Angeles middle schools were asked to name students whom they considered to be the “coolest” and the ones they deemed to be bullies. Their answers revealed that they believed the ones who were “coolest” actually bullied more, and the ones who bullied more were seen as “coolest.”

Anne says kids who bully also model bullying behavior they see in celebrities, athletes, characters in TV and film, and politicians. “People, many of us consider to be role models, often set very bad examples for impressionable children, and for other adults.”

Children also have to deal with bullying online, where their bullies are often anonymous. The Internet has revolutionized social communication and interaction, and while much of it is good, people who bully – including kids – use technology to cause emotional harm.

Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.

Here are some stats on “cyberbullying,” also from NoBullying.com.

  • 43% of kids have been bullied online; 33% have been threatened.
  • Girls are twice as likely as boys to be victims of cyberbullying, but also twice as likely to be the perpetrator.
  • More than 50% of parents are concerned about bullying on social media sites, but only about one in six parents are aware of this behavior in regard to their children.
  • 70% of children report seeing online bullying, and they recognize it is a serious problem.
  • Only an estimated 10% of kids who have been bullied online report so to their parents.

“Social media has provided more tools for people to bully, but we have plenty of tools to confront bullying in all its forms” Anne says. “We can help kids who are bullied and kids who do the bullying. It all starts with honest dialog.”

She says kids are embarrassed to talk about being bullied. “They think they can somehow handle it. Meanwhile, parents either don’t want to admit that their child is being bullied or simply don’t know how to address it.”

“Hiding the bullying and perpetuating the stigma of being bullied erodes your self-esteem. Getting kids to talk about it automatically boosts their self-esteem and empowers them to assert control over the situation. Talking about it helps them understand that it’s not their fault, it’s the bully’s problem.”

Anne says that seeing things from the perspective of the bully also resonates with kids who have been bullied. “I like to tell them that ‘Hurt people, hurt people,’ that this person who is hurting you, is very likely being hurt by someone else, too. Having empathy for the bully helps kids take control and further boosts their self-esteem. It helps them to stop internalizing the situation and shed some of the stress.”

Role playing with kids who are being bullied can also be useful, she says. “Kids love roleplaying. Practicing in a safe and fun setting helps them so that when bullying happens again in real life, it’s not as scary or shocking. We show them how to stand tall, hold their heads up, be confident and not hang their heads and slink away.”

“Use your body language, not in an aggressive or intimidating way, but with confidence. It says to the person doing the bullying that ‘You are bullying me and I’m looking you straight in the eye.’ They likely won’t expect that.”

Anne is very clear with children that they should not seek revenge or retaliate with hurtful words of their own. “Don't fight back with your fists or harsh words. Just say, ‘You are wrong,’ and walk away.

Laugh it off, if possible, too, she says. But not in a taunting way. “Using humor has the added benefit of helping if the bully says something that’s actually true. ‘You’re right! I do have the clunkiest bike or the rustiest car or the ugliest sweater or the worst haircut!’ Have a good laugh and then just walk away.”

Kids, she says, want to feel they have some power. They want to laugh and feel safe.

“Hopefully parents help them get all these things. Kids must have a safe adult to go to. If their parents aren’t it, I tell them to look for a school counselor, teacher, aunt, coach, parent of a friend … someone they trust to talk about the bullying.”

Then let your child talk, she says. “Listen to the child. Don’t correct. Don’t judge. Simply listen. Then be okay with what you hear. Many parents are in denial that their child was told she is ugly and stupid, or that he got his head shoved into a toilet. But if they listen and accept a child’s truth, the child will begin to get the help he or she needs.”

The same is true for cyberbullying. “A lot of parents say ‘Just turn it off. Just get off Facebook if you are being bullied.’ Unfortunately, that will not solve the problem. Our society, including our children, are enmeshed with social media. Telling a child to just turn off Facebook only minimizes the pain that child is feeling.”

Instead, Anne says parents should encourage kids to tell them immediately if they, or someone they know, is being cyberbullied. Assure them that you won’t take away their computers or cell phones if they confide in you about a problem they are having.

Ask for their passwords, but tell them you’ll only use them in case of emergency. Ask to “friend” or “follow” your kids on social media sites or ask another trusted adult to do so.

Also, have a sense of what your kids do online and in texts. Learn about the sites they like and their online activities. Just like when they leave the house, ask where they’re going, what they’re doing, and who they’re doing it with online.

Above all, says Anne and other bullying experts, check your own behavior, and love and accept your kids.

“I often use the word ‘acceptance’ with parents,” she says. “If they are not accepted at home, at school, in their social circles, they may seek out individuals who will not always have their best interests in mind. They will be bullied and may well become bullies themselves. And we know that bullies have a high risk of engaging in substance abuse and becoming incarcerated as a juvenile, adult, or both.”

Anne said she and her FACT colleagues “go wherever children need us – to their homes, their schools, wherever they may be.” During the school year, they see kids frequently at school. “It really allows us to observe them in their settings. Also allows us to coordinate with teachers and school counselors and observe the interactions between children and teachers.

“Bullying is a big problem for schools, families, our youth,” says Anne. “Everyone – parents, educators, kids, our leaders – have a role in preventing it. Its impact can be devastating. But I see more teens and adolescents feeling empowered to take it on, more aware of their rights and abilities. I don’t see them suffer in silence, as much.

“We adults can learn a lot from them.”

To learn more about bullying visit https://www.nobully.org and https://www.stopbullying.gov. Both sites offer extensive information on bullying – what it is, who is at risk, how to respond to it, and how to prevent it.

To learn more about the FACT program at Family & Children Services or to make a referral, contact:
Kalamazoo County
Angela Johnson, MS, LPC, LBSW
269.373.0248, ext. 4230 / Angela.Johnson@fcsource.org

Calhoun County
Tim Meyer, LMSW
269.986.7581 / Timothy.Meyer@fcsource.org

Anne Stefanov

Anne Stefanov
FACT Home Based Therapist