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Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Words Can Never Hurt Me…

by Denise Alexander

Q: Let’s start with the title of this story. Is there any truth in that saying or is it just completely wrong?

A: Perhaps the title should be “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will surely hurt me.” Words can be devastating, whether they’re said directly through face-to-face communication or indirectly, through technology. Physical bullying occurs frequently, but verbal bullying – and especially cyber bullying – is now more prevalent. And both types of bullying have longterm effects.

Q: How do you define bullying?

A: There are many definitions, but most researchers agree that bullying is a form of aggression characterized by the intent to cause harm, repetition of the harmful behavior, and an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim.

Bullying takes many forms. It can be physical, involving an attack on another person, or verbal, with name-calling or threats. Psychological bullying is less direct. Examples include spreading rumors about a person or excluding him or her from the group. And finally, cyber bullying is willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers and cell phones.

Q: Bullying itself is an age-old phenomenon. Somemight say that it’s something to shake off or that today’s kids should just toughen up. Is the issue being over-hyped?

A: Actually, thanks to the media, counseling professionals, and government leaders speaking out, there is now greater awareness of the psychological effects that bullying has on children. We see and hear about the negative effects of school violence in all forms. This has led to more research and a greater focus in the educational community on how to deal with bullying. The short answer is no, this issue is not being over-hyped.

Q: Is there more bullying today than in the past? Is there any statistical evidence to prove this one way or the other?

A: Bullying is on the rise. According to the National Education Association, there is evidence that 160,000 students miss school every day due to fear of intimidation. Almost 30% of school-age children report being bullied, and that number soars to 60% if you narrow the field to middle-school students. And these numbers may only represent the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that more than half of bullying instances are not reported, so it is difficult to get an accurate count.

Q: How much cyber bullying is really taking place?

A: Cyber bullying is pervasive. By its very nature, it’s difficult to control. It’s easier to be cruel online because the bully isn’t close to the victim and can’t personally see the emotional damage being done. Even worse, the hurtful actions are viral and can be seen by large numbers of Internet users.

And cyber bullying provides protection through anonymity. The bully can use another name, hide in the safety of his or her own room, and avoid intervention from adults, especially if his or her parents are not computer savvy. So online bullies have a sense of power and not much fear of consequences.

There is no question that cyber bullying has become an enormous issue and we’ve only just started to think about ways we can combat it.

Q: What makes someone a bully? Is it nature or nurture, or maybe a combination?

A: While nature can play a part, I believe more strongly that it is nurture. Some kids who bully may have been bullied by authority figures – parents, teachers, older siblings – and they take their cues from that. Social Learning Theory tells us that children learn from models. If they see people in authority behaving inappropriately, they are likely to imitate that behavior.

The character traits exhibited by bullies include aggressive and impulsive behavior, lack of control, and a need to feel powerful. In part, they act this way because they want to be accepted. It’s true that some bullies are simply narcissistic, but for children who may not be feeling very good about themselves, bullying is a way to feel powerful. For example, a child who has been friendly with a quiet, unassuming child for years may suddenly turn on him in a bid to be accepted, to be part of the cool crowd.

Q: Following from that, what are some of the additional factors that contribute to bullying?

A: Age is a prime factor. Bullying can start as early as 2nd grade. It tends to really heat up in 4th grade, especially with girls, and peak in 6th to 8th grade. Often, it continues on into high school.

Research shows that if there is no intervention, if the behavior is not challenged, there is a danger that bullying will continue into adulthood, and these people are at risk for criminal or domestic violence. According to one study, 60% of individuals who were bullies between 6th and 9th grade had at least one criminal conviction by age 24.

Gender also plays a role. Boys tend to be more physical, so you see more hitting, punching, and pushing among them. Girls are more verbal. And girls are much more likely to be cyber bullies – spreading rumors, threatening, and teasing others on Facebook, in text messages, and with camera phones. Both types of bullying are equally damaging.

Peer pressure is another factor that contributes to bullying behavior. Sometimes children bully to “be cool” or be accepted by a certain group. It’s also important to note that stereotypes don’t always prove true. Bullying in schools cuts across groups. Teachers frequently report that they are surprised at who’s doing the bullying.

Home and school environments also have a significant impact on a child’s behavior. If kids see inappropriate behavior from parents or a tolerance of bullying in school, they will imitate those inappropriate behaviors without fear of consequences.

Fortunately, most schools are doing a thorough job of training teachers to be cognizant of bullying situations, to intervene appropriately, and to report the conduct to the school administration.

Q: What makes someone a victim?

A: Victims of bullying are often individuals who are perceived as being different. That difference could be that the person is too tall, too thin, too heavy, who knows? There really is no logic to this; an individual can be singled out for the silliest or smallest of reasons.

As to personality characteristics, victims tend to be socially isolated, quiet, sensitive, passive, and submissive. They may have difficulty making friends. Other children perceive them as being weak.

Sexual orientation can also put one at risk for being a target. According to the Teaching Tolerance organization, 86% of gay and lesbian students report being bullied. The good news is that there is widespread awareness of this issue and a large-scale effort by schools to address it. There is a wonderful documentary entitled Bullied, which dramatizes the struggles of Jamie Nabozny, a gay student who was bullied throughout his middle- and high-school years and who ultimately sued his local school system for failing to protect him. The school system settled the case with a large payment to Nabozny. This video and other educational materials are distributed to schools by Teaching Tolerance. These tools are helping to raise awareness and combat bullying in schools.

Q: Why do children who are not directly involved in bullying stand on the sidelines?

A: According to Teaching Tolerance, only 10 to 20% of bystanders provide any real help to a victim in a bullying situation. All kinds of research is being done on why this is the case, but one of the biggest factors appears to be fear.

Bystanders may avoid intervening so that they themselves won’t be targeted. Sometimes they’re afraid that they will lose friends or status if they speak up. Bullies have the ability to create the impression that they have everyone’s support, and this makes bystanders fearful of retaliation or alienation from the group.

In some situations, the bully mentality can become the accepted norm and therefore bystanders do not challenge it or see it as wrong.

It can also be that bystanders simply don’t have the skills to intervene. This provides an opening for schools to implement programs that define bullying behaviors and teach appropriate intervention strategies. An important part of this education is to help all students understand that they have a responsibility to report incidents of bullying and reach out to support victims.

Q: What can authority figures do?

A: First and foremost, protect the children.

Every school needs to have a written policy that outlines expectations for behavior and stipulates the consequences for bullying. And that policy must be enforced. Thanks to recent high-profile incidents, bullying is now in the national spotlight more than ever before, and most schools are aware of the need to take preventive action.

For example, all Virginia public schools have mandated Character Education programs that teach students to celebrate differences and practice kindness, sensitivity, respect, responsibility, and cooperative behaviors. School counselors are at the forefront of delivering these lessons through classroom guidance programs and group presentations.

There are also numerous bullying prevention programs designed for the authority figures in schools – and they’re not just for teachers. Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers – everyone in the school community – needs to know what to look for and how to intervene effectively. Teachers can’t be everywhere, so training all employees leads to more effective supervision in the halls and the restrooms, on the playground and the buses – all places where bullying can occur.

The school administration must also actively support parent education by helping parents see how they can advocate for their child if he or she is a victim. It is important for parents to understand that they must report bullying to school administrators even if it occurs off school grounds and after school hours. Administrators can conduct parent conferences, suggest interventions, and involve school counselors to provide support to the victim.

School counselors may also be of assistance to the bully by providing counseling and helping to promote behavior change. While school administrators are responsible for enforcing the consequences for bullying, school counselors provide support to the victims and help bullies change their behavior.

Of course, in the most egregious cases, there are legal ramifications for bullying behavior and legal action may be warranted.

Q: When all is said and done, there will always be bullies. What counsel would you give to a victim or the family on how to deal with abuse and prevent it from causing lasting damage?

A: It sounds simplistic, but parents need to listen to their child. They should monitor the child’s relationships at school and online; ask about his or her day; take what the child says seriously, especially if the talk is about children who mistreat others. And be vigilant for signs of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. If any of those danger signs appear, the parent must act immediately by contacting a school counselor or other mental-health professional for assessment and counseling. And, of course, parents should have empathy and assure their child that they will do anything they can to stop the bullying and ensure his or her safety.

It cannot be stressed enough that parents and schools need to work together. And school counselors play an integral role in this process. The goal should be to assist the child who is being bullied, encourage the development of healthy relationships, and teach him or her to be assertive and respond to bullies in a manner that is appropriate and safe.

School counselors can also provide individual counseling to explore feelings and build self esteem. And parents can help their child develop healthy relationships by encouraging social activities such as play dates, scouts, sports, and clubs.

The effects of bullying are long-lasting. Scars will remain, but with appropriate intervention and support, it is possible for victims to move past the hurt and go forward to lead happy and productive lives.

Bullying Facts from the National Youth Violence Resource Center:
  • 88% of middle school and high school students have witnessed bullying in their schools.
  • 50% of bullying behavior can be eliminated if there is a school-wide commitment to end bullying.
  • Being bullied or being a bully is a risk factor for teen suicide.

Additional information can be found at the following sites: