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Safe and sound: preventing and addressing bullying behaviors

Wednesday, October 23, 2019
By Richard Chung, MD, for KidsFirst

Bullying is a prevalent problem and a ubiquitous concern among parents. Whether physical or verbal aggression, behind-the-scenes rumormongering, or online attacks, bullying can have wide-ranging and substantial consequences. Instead of fostering a sense of specialness among children, personal distinctions become relational wedges and even weapons. Further, national divisiveness has trickled down to the youngest among us with recent studies showing an increase in the use of racial, religious, and other slurs in school settings. As we observe National Bullying Prevention Month this October, here are a few key points for parents to know.

Bullying is everyone’s concern. Bullying persists when it raises concern only among the victims involved. To move towards true prevention it is crucial to understand the breadth of what experts call the “bullying circle,” which includes not only the bully and the victim but also the variety of children who in some way are privy to the bullying situation. This may include children who support the bully, bystanders who are indifferent, and those who are sympathetic to or even defensive of the victim. Around 30% of young people will report being directly involved as a bully or a victim, but the broader circle includes upwards of 80%. If all of those children and all of their parents explicitly push back against bullying, then significant positive change is possible. In fact, research shows that the most effective school interventions are those that shift the “norm” of the entire community towards zero tolerance. In bullying there are bullies, victims, bystanders, and advocates. No one is uninvolved. It's everyone's concern.

Bullying isn’t just kids being kids. Yes, kids will be kids, but overt aggression and harm are never OK. While difficult peer interactions may be inevitable, the persistent and pervasive harm of bullying is not some sort of developmentally normative quirk of growing up. Kids will get upset and argue, but bullying involves a persistent toxic state of relational distress. It’s tempting to downplay bullying situations. However, children are socially and emotionally vulnerable. As such, even seemingly “minor” incidents can cause significant distress and difficult relationships will be experienced as clear and present dangers until proven otherwise.

Perhaps more than anything else, children deserve to feel safe and valued. 

Oftentimes the isolation is what hurts the most. Victimization is isolating. There is often shame and fear involved, and both can drive victims further into their experiences and away from actively seeking help. Relatively few bullying victims report their experiences. Perhaps they don’t think that anyone can help or they fear retribution should their tormentor be punished. As such, checking in regularly with your child and being observant for any significant changes in mood or behavior are important. Further, a great buffer against the isolation of victimization is encouraging children to pursue their passions. Whether college application-worthy or not, passionate pursuits often bring with them close personal friendships and social circles which can undergird a child’s sense of belonging, and insulate against the harms of bullying experiences.

If your child is being bullied, make plans and take action WITH your child. The first step is to fully hear your child out. It is tempting to rush to both judgment and action, but oftentimes bullying situations are exquisitely complicated and the right actions may not be intuitive. Your reaction to bullying may be intense. After all, parents desperately want their children to feel safe and valued and bullying is a threat to both. It is crucial to empower your child in the midst of any victimization experience. Validate your child’s distress and assure your child that you will help. As much as possible, work together to find solutions and help your child feel in control. Victims are already feeling helpless and without agency. If the “help” they receive feels out of their control, this will only compound their suffering.

Help your bystander become an advocate. As psychologist Peter Fonagy has said, “The whole drama is supported by the bystander.  Theater can’t take place if there’s no audience.” Bullying is perpetuated not just by the persistent aggression of a few bullies, but the pervasive inaction of a multitude of bystanders. It is natural to be fearful of intervening, and no child should ever feel obligated to jeopardize his or her own safety. Rather than becoming embroiled in the conflict, advocates can seek help from responsible adults, befriend and comfort victims, and cultivate a culture of safety by influencing their peers. Importantly there is a difference between tattling, which is driven by a desire to get someone in trouble, and reporting, which is driven by a desire to keep someone safe. Help your child think through his or her own plan for being an advocate rather than a bystander the next time a bullying situation arises.

Perhaps more than anything else, children deserve to feel safe and valued. Bullying is an affront to both. It is variegated, often nested in a tangled web of personal, school, and community factors, and often so common and pervasive as to appear insurmountable. Thankfully, we know that when communities come together to ensure the safety of all children, positive change is possible. This October as we recognize National Bullying Prevention Month let’s redouble our efforts to love and communicate well with the children we care for and to proactively shape the world they roam through public advocacy and creative partnerships.

Richard Chung, M.D. is the director of Adolescent Medicine at Duke University in Durham, NC.



Related resources
[U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]

Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center

“KidsFirst” is a blog, hosted by the Duke Department of Pediatrics, that provides high quality information to families on a wide range of important child health topics.