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Bullying: How to fight back

Bullying affects all kids, be they victim or perpetrator, and all demographics, says Michele Borba, author and educational psychologist. Borba is the on-screen consultant to the new documentary, "Bullied To Silence" (bulliedtosilence.com). Indeed, verbal and cyberbullying can drive victims to self-destructive behavior and suicide.

"Words do hurt," Borba says. "So many adults don't recognize the severe emotional damage. I still hear 'It's a phase' or 'It'll toughen him up.' I'm appalled."

Following is an edited interview with Borba.

Q: What do parents need to know?

A: The two biggest mistakes are not taking their children's complaints seriously, and allowing it in the first place. There's no excuse for bullying. It's intentional cruelty. We need to stop it.

Q: What's your advice for parents?

A: Stop rescuing. Instead, empower. If you want your child to stick up for herself, don't be so quick to speak for her at a young age. Young children need practice in assertiveness early, so when they need to stand up to a bully, they can.

Take your child seriously when he reports bullying. Reassure that you believe him and will find a way to keep him safe. Research shows 49 percent of kids say they were bullied during a school year, but only 32 percent of parents believed them. Half of the 10-year-olds who told their parents about bullying say the parents didn't even remember the talk.

Distinguish bullying from teasing. Bullying is intentional and mean-spirited, usually repeated, and involves a power imbalance, with the victim unable to hold his own. Bullying involves a higher level of threat and abuse. First, establish it as bullying so you can respond appropriately. Ask, "Was it an accident, or did he hurt you on purpose?" "Did you do or say anything first to upset him?" "Did he do it more than once?" "Did he know he was hurting you?" "Did she care that you were sad or angry?" "Did you tell her to stop?"

If your child is unsure that it's bullying, encourage her to ask witnesses, to get their take.

Q: Do you find adults oblivious to bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth?

A: Yes. Research shows LGBT youth have among the highest levels of victimization. The frequency and intensity of bullying these kids endure might surprise most adults. When I ask kids who is most likely to be targets of bullies, the word is "different." We need to boost empathy and tolerance in our children.

Q: Can we help a bully change?

A: The key is to determine why. What is the bully gaining from aggressive behavior? That answer provides the appropriate intervention. Bullying is learned, and can be unlearned. The mistake is to apply a cookie-cutter approach. Bullies bully for many reasons, including poor impulse control, lack of empathy, poor problem-solving skills, low self-esteem.

Q: Do the bullied turn into bullies?

A: We know that 13 percent of the time, bullies or bullied switch roles, so "once a bully, always a bully" doesn't apply. Most school shooters have been bullied repeatedly. In this case, the bullied child, lacking intervention or advocacy, takes matters into his own hands.

sunday@tribune.com

What to do if your child is bullied

Michele Borba's advice for parents:

If your child could be injured, step in.

Notify an authority — a teacher, coach, day care worker. If you're not satisfied, go up a level: principal, superintendent, school board. Expect protection. Ask, "What will you do to ensure my child's safety?"

Keep records and evidence such as torn clothing, and witnesses' contact information. Print and keep any vicious instant messages, or threatening emails.

Demand confidentiality: You don't want retaliation. Limit whom you tell.

Your child doesn't feel safe with the bully, so do not allow face-to-face contact. Even apologies should be written.

If you can't get support, your only option may be to remove your child from the class, bus, park program, or even neighborhood and school.

— C.S.M.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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