Bullying, intimidation and interpersonal conflict is something all children encounter in one form or another. Children struggle with being called names, being picked upon, being excluded, not knowing how to make friends, or being the ones acting unkindly or aggressively toward others. All forms of bullying are abusive and all are opportunities to teach children how to get along, how to be considerate people, how to be part of a community or group.
Bullying can take many forms: physical, emotional, verbal or a combination of these. It may involve one child bullying another, a group of children against a single child or groups against other groups (gangs).
It is not unlike other forms of victimization and abuse in that it involves:
Â· An imbalance of power
Â· Differing emotional tones, the victim will be upset whereas the bully is cool and in control
Â· Blaming the victim for what has happened
Â· Lack of concern on the part of the bully for the feelings and concerns of the victim
Â· A lack of compassion
WHO ARE THE BULLIES
Bullies are very often children who have been bullied or abused themselves. Sometimes they are children experiencing life situations they can’t cope with, that leave them feeling helpless and out of control. They may be children with poor social skills, who do not fit in, who can’t meet the expectations of their family or school. They bully to feel competent, successful, to control someone else, to get some relief from their own feelings of powerlessness.
WHO ARE THE VICTIMS
Not all children are equally likely to be victimized by bullying behavior.
Those children who are more prone to be picked upon tend to have the following characteristics:
Â· Low self-esteem
Â· Lack of social skills,
Â· Don’t pick up on social cues
Â· Cry or become emotionally distraught easily,
Â· Unable to defend or stand up for themselves
Some children actually seem to provoke their own victimization. These children will tease bullies; make themselves a target by egging the people on, not knowing when to stop and then not being able to effectively defend themselves when the balance of power shifts to the bully. Many children who are bullied prefer this negative attention to no attention at all.
THE POWER FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
Children who are not bullied are the most powerful agents for change. They tend to have better social skills and conflict management skills. They are more willing to assert themselves about differences without being aggressive or confronting. They suggest compromises and alternate solutions. They tend to be more aware of people’s feelings and are the children who can be most helpful in resolving disputes and assisting other children to get help.
First, the children who are bullies and those who are victims are the least able to extricate themselves from their situation. The real power lies with those children in the middle. Those who are neither bullies nor victims. They have the best social skills, the highest self-esteem and are those most likely to be emulated. Teaching this group of children that bullying is unacceptable and giving them the skills to intervene immediately, effectively and consistently is where we create the possibility of reducing the levels of bullying in this culture.
Secondly, by teaching children that all forms of bullying are unacceptable, we lay the foundation for prevention of physical, emotional and verbal abuse by adults. Children who are emotionally and physically abused by adults are most likely to continue that pattern when they themselves become adults. Without suggesting that parents might abuse children or indicating that those who do are bad people, we can give children a way to recognize victimization at the hands of adults.
We can also provide skills in two specific areas:
1. Getting help when they need it
2. Not internalizing verbal and emotional abuse
Finally, as teachers and parents learn that social interaction is as important a skill as reading and writing we can begin to change the patterns of unkind and inappropriate social interactions from the earliest age. We can stop saying things like “you guys work it out” to children who have no skills to work it out. We can become advocates for all children and families in our every day interactions as well as through this specific curriculum.
PREVENTING BULLYING As soon as children begin to interact with others, we can begin to teach them not to be bullies and not to be bullied. We can give them words for their feelings, limit and change their behavior, and teach them better ways to express their feelings and wishes. Children do not learn to solve these kinds of problems and get along by themselves. We need to teach them. When preschoolers begin to call people names or use unkind words, intervene immediately and consistently. In kindergarten, children learn the power of exclusion. We begin to hear things like, “she’s not my friend and she can’t come to my party.” Respond with, “you don’t have to be friends with her today, but it’s not all right to make her feel bad by telling her she can’t come to your party.” In the early elementary grades, cliques and little groups develop which can be quite exclusionary and cruel. Children need to hear clearly from us, “It’s not all right to treat other people this way. How do you think she feels being told she can’t play with you?” Kids don’t have to play with everyone or even like everyone, but they can’t be cruel about excluding others. Boys who are physically small or weak are more prone to victimization. Making fun, picking on and other forms of bullying need to be identified in their earliest stages.
The message needs to be crystal clear. “This is not okay. Think about how he must feel. How could you include him and let other kids know it’s not all right to treat others this way?” Children who are not bullies or victims have a powerful role to play in shaping the behavior of other children. Teach children to speak up on behalf of children being bullied. “Don’t treat her that way, it’s not nice.” “Hitting is not a good way to solve problems, let’s find a teacher and talk about what happened.” Children learn by doing. Just as in prevention of child abuse, role-play is what makes prevention of bullying and interpersonal conflict skills real for children. Actually walking through situations and having the children practice different responses is what takes the information from the level of concept – or idea – to a skill that is learned in the “muscles and will never be forgotten.
The process of teaching is one of discussion first and then role-play, applying the concepts to real situations and learning how to implement the concepts with skill.
– Dr. Sherryll Kraizer, Executive Director of the Coalition for Children, has a Bachelors degree in Special Education, a Masters degree in Psychology and is a Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in youth at risk. Please visit the Coalition for Children: www.safechild.org to get more information about Bullying and Interpersonal Violence. Kraizer@safechild.org