What can you do about bullies?
When A. O. Scott reviewed the movie Drillbit Taylor for the New York Times he noted that the advertisements promised, “You get what you pay for.” Scott retorted, “I saw it free, and I still feel cheated.”
It’s too bad that the film didn’t meet the mark, because its theme addressed an underlying issue that hits home every fall. Three freshman are eager to have school get off to a good start, but they end up being victimized by bullies. Not knowing which way to turn, they hire a military veteran as bodyguard. The movie reflects the desire of anyone who was ever been bullied. If only there was someone who would be there by my side, defending me at all times, then I could go about my daily routine without fear. Of course, life is never that simple. Teens need to have each others’ backs. Parents and school personnel need to be aware of the different types of bullying.
What exactly is bullying? It involves repeated, unprovoked efforts to dominate, harm or intimidate another person. We usually think of physical aggression, such as hitting or ripping clothing. But the old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” just isn’t true. Words are powerful and verbal bullying, such as taunting and teasing, can make a person suffer more than a slap in the face. Finally, some bullies rely on social methods, such as relational aggression. By shunning victims, and encouraging others to exclude them as well, these bullies isolate their victims socially. For example, Regina and the “Plastics” in the movie Mean Girls encouraged Cady to shun her close friends Damien and Janis. A key part of bullying is that it occurs over and over in a series of encounters. It would be unusual to reach adulthood without being teased or hit. I’m sure most of us have wished for an invitation to a birthday party that never came! When negative interactions occur now and then, we learn how to de-escalate the situation. But when it feels like a systematic effort is being made to harm us, then a sense of helplessness sets in and there can be long-term consequences. The self-esteem of victims undergoes a significant drop. Most victims become withdrawn, but some actually become aggressive and retaliate. In that case, a victim also becomes a bully.
One would think that bullies would be disliked by all their peers. Often, however, they have a group of supporters. In addition, many by-standers are uncomfortable, but don’t speak up. Are bullies happy? No! Usually bullies become that way because of their own problems. They might not have been taught how to deal with aggression in a way that is socially appropriate. It takes effort to control emotional outbursts and hostility. Sometimes bullies are repeating behaviors that they have observed at home. Punishment might be harsh in a bully’s home. For example, if a teen broke a window playing softball, then a logical consequence might be, “You have to earn the money to buy a new window.” A punitive form of discipline might be to strike the offender with a belt as a reminder not to play ball by a window. Other families might not use physical punishment, but might use relational aggression, such as teasing or taunting at home. There are other reasons why a person becomes a bully, but none of them are healthy, positive explanations.
The victims are miserable, the bullies aren’t healthy, and the by-standers are distressed! This is definitely a situation that needs to change. Our faith calls us to improve these relationships. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read about the spiritual works of mercy. These might sound like something that you do when you go help out at a food bank or volunteer time at a parish event. But the works of mercy are meant to become integrated into our daily routines, too. “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. (242 Cf. Isa 58:6 7; Heb 13:3) Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently.” (CCC #2447)
What can I do to make a difference?
- Work to change the culture at your school. Make sure that adults know what is going on. It is their job to protect teens from bullying. If you know that someone is being attacked, taunted, having lunch money taking away or anything that makes you worry, then inform an adult. You will be helping change the atmosphere of the whole school. Don’t laugh when someone is victimized or do anything to encourage a bully.
- If there are places that aren’t safe, then let your parents and school officials know that supervision is needed in those areas. It is important that adults know that taunting is taking place in restrooms, for example.
- Be on the lookout for anyone who seems lonely; try to befriend him or her. It is more difficult for a bully to target a person in a group. Can you and your friends make room at lunch? Is there a seat by your group on the bus? Some shy individuals want to be included, but have a difficult time with social interactions. Try initiating the interaction.
- If you are a victim, then let your parents and teachers know. Explain that you want to stay in the same classes. Have your parents suggest that the bully be moved away from you rather than the other way around. Retaliating is not an effective strategy. If your school has a counselor, then he or she can help you with strategies on learning to defuse situations and developing stronger relationships with healthy peers!
- It is painful to be a bully, too. If you want to talk about it, then give this column to an adult you trust and say that you want to talk to a counselor!
What is your perspective on bullying?
Adults need to change their perspectives about bullying and its consequences. Even the president has experienced this. President Obama shared memories of bullying from his own childhood, saying, “As adults, we all remember what it was like to see kids picked on in the hallways or in the schoolyard. And I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune. I didn’t emerge unscathed. But because it’s something that happens a lot, and it’s something that’s always been around, sometimes we’ve turned a blind eye to the problem. We’ve said, ‘Kids will be kids.’ And so sometimes we overlook the real damage that bullying can do, especially when young people face harassment day after day, week after week.” (The White House Blog, 3/10/11) President Obama noted that modern technology has given bullies the opportunity to reach their victims beyond school itself. First Lady Michelle Obama emphasized that parents need to be supported by other adults: “We all need to play a role – as teachers, coaches, as faith leaders, elected officials, and anyone who’s involved in our children’s lives. And that doesn’t just mean working to change our kids’ behavior and recognize and reward kids who are already doing the right thing. It means thinking about our own behavior as adults.” (The White House Blog, 3/10/11)
The American Psychological Association produced a pamphlet, How Parents, Teachers and Kids Can Take Action to Prevent Bullying, giving specific suggestions for parents, school administrators and teachers. In Michigan, Matt’s Safe School Law has been in effect since 2011. The law is named after Matt Epling, who committed suicide after being bullied in 2002. Matt’s father, Kevin Epling, works diligently to create safer environments for children and teens through the prevention of bullying. Societal changes are needed and there are signs that adults are recognizing these needs. In February 2013, the Jackson County Intermediate School District arranged to show the movie “Bully” to thousands of students. Epling, speaking at one of the showings, encouraged students to ask their own parents about childhood experiences of bullying. Take the time today to reflect on what role you can play in preventing bullying.
- About 56 percent of students have witnessed bullying.
- 15 percent of students who don’t show up for school report the reason as fear of bullying.
- About one out of every 10 students drops out or changes schools because of bullying.
- One out of every 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school.
- 90 percent of students report being the victim of some form of bullying between the fourth and eighth grades.
- Among students of all ages, homicide perpetrators were found to be twice as likely as homicide victims to have been bullied previously by their peers.
- More than half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online.
- More than half of young people do not tell their parents when cyberbullying occurs.
Where can you find help? – The Diocese of Lansing is participating in a virtue-based restorative discipline program developed at the Archdiocese of St. Louis. This is a way to focus on positive virtues rather than the negativity of bullying – parents are expected to be active in the program, and the emphasis is on deciding what virtues to work on building up. For more information, visit www.virtuebase.com/discipline.html