Bullying:  It’s got to stop, once-and-for-all

 Hylton I Lightman, MD, DCH (SA), FAAP

Bullying – It’s always been there and it’s always been everywhere.  Even when I was growing up way-back-when in another, country, in a different hemisphere, on the other side of the world.

Kids and teens can be mean to one another.  Real mean.  So mean that other kids will cry and develop anxiety.  The “victim’s” grades can be compromised and they can become socially isolated.  And the problem can then become self-perpetuating.  Some adult survivors of this syndrome aptly named “Bullying” testify that, no matter what successes they achieve as adults, remnants of this ugly legacy remain with them forever.

Let’s define bullying:

Most kids have been teased by a sibling or friend at some point.  This is part-and-parcel of childhood and growing up.  Yet when teasing becomes hurtful, unkind and constant, it crosses the line into bullying and needs to stop.

Bullying, according to Stop Bullying, it is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.  The behavior is repeated (or potentially can be repeated) over time.

An imbalance of power means kids who use their power to control others.  This might include physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity.  Power imbalances are not static.  They can change over time and from situation to situation, even while involving the same people.  And yes, they grow up to be teenagers and adults.

Bullying includes actions such as:

  • making threats
  • spreading rumors
  • attacking someone physically or verbally
  • excluding someone from a group on purpose

Bullying falls into three categories:

  1. Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things and includes teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting and threatening to cause harm.
  1. Social bullying involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships and includes leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about a person and/or publically embarrassing a person.
  1. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions and includes hitting/kicking/pinching, spitting, tripping/pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, and making mean or rude hand gestures.

The most insidious thing in this ugly picture is bullying can begin at really young ages.

It rears its ugly head as early as preschool.  Woe to the child who’s not as coordinated as his peers and lags in sports adeptness.  The spring and summer months can be tortuously long.

Before going further, I’m adding a disclaimer.  Many children are gifted at taking emotional molehills and spinning them into full-blown Category 5 hurricanes.  We’re not talking about that here.

There’s also a danger here.  In today’s confused world filled with emotionally fragile people, if you disagree with someone, you can be labelled a “bully.”  That’s not what this is about either.

What are the warning signs of bullying? 

Unless your child tells you about bullying or he has visible bruises or injuries, it can be difficult to figure out if it’s happening.  But there are warning signs that parents should heed.  They include kids acting differently or seeming anxious, not eating or sleeping well, and not doing the things they usually enjoy doing.  When kids seem moodier or upset more easily than usual, or if they start avoided “regular” situations like standing at the bus stop, start sleuthing out whether bullying is an issue.

If you suspect your child is being bullied and your child isn’t discussing it with you, don’t personalize it.  Find opportunities to bring up the issue in a more circuitous way.  For example, there might be a story in a magazine or on television; ask you child, “What do you think about this?” or “What do you think that person should have done?”

This might be your opening to questions like “Have you ever seen this happen?” or “Have you ever experienced this?”  Another option is Mom or Dad can share of their own experiences growing up.

If your child opens up to you about what’s happening, listen calmly.  Offer comfort and support.  Kids can be reticent about speaking about being bullied because of feelings of shame and embarrassment.  They also worry that their parents may be disappointed, upset, angry or reactive.

Some are afraid that their parents may not believe them.  Most are terrified that the bully or bullies will find out that an adult knows.

Hence, it’s important to praise your child for doing the right thing by coming to you to talk about it.  Remind your child that he is not alone, that many people are bullied at some point in their lives.  Underscore that your child is not the one misbehaving but it’s the bully.  Counsel your child to avoid the bully and to use a buddy system (and he should do the same for a friend).  It’s also important that your child tries, under the most trying of circumstances, to hold his anger.  The bully really wants to elicit a reaction.  Teach your child what a poker face is and how to maintain one, and while acting bravely, to walk away and to ignore the bully.

The key here is in the follow up!

It’s imperative that you let the teacher, school principal or camp director know what’s happening.  Your child needs to feel safe and must be safe, and the perpetrator must be stopped.  You might refer to an earlier article I wrote about “Words Can Kill.”

Does your child’s school have bullying policies or anti-bullying programs?  If the answer is no, there’s no time like the present for you, Mom and Dad, to take on this cause.  You’ll be benefitting your child, his friends and generations of Klal Yisrael.

What can we do to prevent bullying?

Bully prevention begins at home.  Do you, Mom and Dad, role model for your children how to interact with people in a kind, respectful manner?  What kind of environment have you created for differing opinions?  This includes interacting with people who are different from us.  Do you thank the cashier in the supermarket?  Do you greet the UPS driver?  How do you handle yourself when the bank teller is not moving as fast on your business as you’d like her to?  Respect must always reign supreme.

In school, it’s important to involve the administration.  Honestly, most programs are started and implemented in response to issues.  Why are we doing more about the prevention part?  In addition to programs, school should assure that there is adequate supervision during recess.  Teachers, rather than hanging out in packs, must walk the playgrounds, assuring all kinds of safety.  Watch for the child who sits on the sidelines at recess.  Ensure every child is included in the game.

A word about social media and cyberbullying.  Social media is practically and socially useful.  Think of a child who doesn’t have the evening’s homework for whatever reasons (I’ve been the parent of kids like that).  The WhatsApp class chat can come to the rescue.  More than once, our kids have snapped pictures of homework and sent it to their peers or they’ve been the recipients of such Chessed.   Baruch HaShem.  The evening and next day in school are saved!

But social media can also be morally reprehensible.  Has someone made sure that all children are on the class chat?  It can be emotionally deleterious for a child to be excluded.  And since when have the number of Instagram and Facebook followers become a mark of social success?  Unfriending a person is regarded as a slap in the face.  Yes, not everyone can be friends.  But everyone can be menshlech to all other people.

October is Bullying Prevention Month but I’m not waiting.  It’s May.  It’s Sefira HaOmer when working on our Middos is front-and-center stage.  In a few short weeks, it will be Shevuos.  And then the summer months come with the uncomfortable period called the Three Weeks, which culminates in Tisha B’Av.

You know why we lost the Beis HaMikdash.  Don’t you want to help make the third one a reality?  There’s too much at stake here.

My question to you – Are you stepping to the plate?

Let’s strive to make bullying a thing of the past.

We might then be zoche to a fleishig Tisha B’Av.

As always, daven.

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