Zero Tolerance for Bullies (Tips for taking a stand on bullying)

I want to start off by thanking everyone for the very positive feedback over the past few days.  On Wednesday, I opened a door to my past and shared my personal story about being bullied.  If you missed this post, please read it when you get a chance:  “Pour Your Heart Out” – Bullied.

Whether or not we want to accept it, we live in a culture that is highly focused on power and winning at all costs.  From politics to sports to simple running races, we, as Americans, want to win.  The catch is that we can’t all be winners all of the time.  Inevitably someone ends up on the losing end of the race.  Do we really prepare ourselves for that possibility?  Do we prepare our kids?

Incidents of bullying continue to rise.  The optimistic in me hopes that, at some level, higher percentages indicate that more kids are coming forward and reporting bullying.  The realist in me knows that statistics don’t lie.  They vary, but they don’t lie.

Bullying takes many forms.  The following are the most recognizable:  Verbal, social (isolation), physical, pack, cyberbullying, homophobia, and intolerance of disabilities. Research indicates that boys are more likely to be the targets of physical and pack bullying, while girls most often experience verbal, social, and cyberbullying.

The psychosocial affects of bullying are heartbreaking.  Students who are bullied are likely to experience:  Depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, increased school absence, physical illness, and suicidal and/or homicidal thoughts and/or actions. How many children have to suffer the consequences of bullying before we, as a country, get serious about this and truly take action?  In my opinion, we’ve lost too many kids already.

As of 2009, many states have anti-bullying laws.  The states who have yet to pass legislation include:  Alabama, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.  If you live in one of these states, it’s time to start flooding your local representative with email and phone calls.  They are falling behind.  The state that takes the most progressive approach toward bullying is New Jersey.  An “anti bullying bill of rights” was introduced into the NJ state legislature in October 2010.

There is currently a lot of talk about the fact that bullying is a national problem.  What we really need is action.  Below are some tips to help you take a stand against bullying in your community:


1. Know the facts: Many people choose to remain blissfully unaware of the level of bullying that occurs daily.  While statistics vary based on the study, it is important to know what’s really happening.  The 2009 Indicators of School Crime and Safety statistics reveal that 1/3 of teens are bullied at school, 4% of teens report cyberbullying, 44% of middle schools report bullying as a problem, females and students with disabilities are targeted the most often, and homosexual and bisexual students are the most likely to report bullying. For those of you thinking that 1/3 doesn’t seem that high, look around.  You wouldn’t want your child to fall into that statistic.  Other reports indicate that 160,000 students miss school each day for fear of being bullied, and that every 7 minutes a child is bullied. It’s worth repeating:  Every 7 minutes.  Adults only intervene 4% of the time.

2. Mutual respect starts at home: Research shows that families that are not loving, are not open to expression of feelings, are inconsistent with discipline and supervision, and include parents who bully (either each other or their children) are more likely to produce bullies. It’s our job to teach our children to accept differences.  It’s also up to us to teach our kids how to cope with feelings that might lead to bullying behavior.  They don’t have to be friends with everyone they meet, but they do need to show respect to all other people.  Parents need to model appropriate conflict resolution skills.  If dad bullies mom at home, you can bet that behavior will resurface with your children at school.  Point out times when conflicts are handled appropriately.  Use incidents where conflict was not handled appropriately as a teaching tool.  It sounds easy, but it can take some soul searching to really evaluate parenting styles and make the necessary changes.  There’s no room for sarcasm, physical punishment, or berating when it comes to child rearing.  Check your emotions at the door.

3. Know the “Don’ts”: Children struggle to come forward, even to their parents, when they are being bullied.  They experience a range of emotions, including (but not limited to): sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, and anxiety.  Parental response to reports of bullying can have a huge impact on whether or not a child reports future incidents.  Don’t blame your child.  Don’t tell your child to ignore the bullying (this often makes it worse).  Don’t tell your child to fight back.  Don’t call the parents of the bully to blame them (this often fuels the fire).  Don’t immediately pull your child from his school.  Don’t assume that the school isn’t doing anything (most school policies preclude the school from providing details about the aggressor and consequences provided).

4. Know the “Do’s”: If your child comes to you for help, try to remain calm.  Do listen and empathize. Tell your child that bullying is wrong.  Listen for the details.  Do know the school’s policy on bullying.  Contact a school administrator immediately. Many children fail to report bullying for fear of being blamed or for fear of future repercussions.  Do talk about a plan. If there is a teacher, coach, or school counselor who your child trusts, see if that person is willing to be a point person for your child.  Involve your child in meetings with school administrators.  Do get help for your child. Forget about stigmas, therapy can save lives.  Help your child as soon as possible to work on self-esteem, anxiety, and possible depressive symptoms.  Do practice assertiveness skills at home, including seeking help.

5. If your child is the bully: No one wants to get the phone call identifying your child as the bully.  It happens.  Try to avoid crafting excuses and instead focus on understanding why the event happened.  It might be an isolated event, or the latest in a series of events.  Either way, accepting that your child bullied another child is the first step toward helping him learn a better way to interact.  Set clear and consistent rules for behavior at home AND in the community. Standards of behavior shouldn’t change just because your child leaves the house.  Listen to the explanation. The best way to figure out how to help your child is to listen when he explains his behavior.  Supervise your child carefully. At home, during play dates, and out at the park, watch your child closely and be prepared to intervene.  Be aware of your child’s friends. Particularly if it seems to be an isolated event, you might want to be more careful about who your child befriends.  Get help. As much as bullying makes the bully appear to be a monster, it is also a cry for help at times.  Get your child into counseling immediately.  Work with the school. They don’t dislike your child, but they do need to stop the behavior.  Work with them to come up with a plan.  When parents repeatedly argue with school administrators, everyone loses.  Look for positive outlets. Everyone is good at something:  Music, art, sports, poetry, and the list goes on.  One of the biggest linebackers at my college later published a book of poetry.  Find your child’s strength and channel his energy there.

6. Focus on assertiveness: Studies show that bullies are more likely to back down if other kids intervene and stand up for the target.  Teach your child to help when others need it.  Help might come in the form of standing up to a bully with a quick (and witty) response or it might involve getting an adult.  Recent statistics indicate that peers only intervene 11% of the time, but when they do the bully is more likely to move on. Sean received a note in response to my personal story about bullying.  It was from an old middle school friend who said that he had helped her through some very difficult years simply by being nice to her.  Teach your children to reach out to others and offer friendship to someone in trouble. Even just eating lunch with another person who is going through a difficult time socially might change that person’s life for the better.

7. Be the adult: Bullying is starting younger and younger these days.  It currently peaks during ages 6-9 and during middle school.  But it starts as young as preschool and continues well into college and adulthood.  If you see a child bullying another child it is your job to intervene. I’m the mom at the park who has no problem speaking up.  I keep a close eye on my kids and when others don’t I jump in and redirect those kids when trouble begins.  I wouldn’t say it makes me popular, but it keeps (my) kids safe.  The fact that adults only intervene 4% of the time is alarming.  You are the adult.  You need to make it stop. Ignorance is not bliss.

8. For educators and schools: Back in my 9-5 days, I was a school administrator.  Due to my own experience with bullying combined with my frustration regarding students bullying other students, I made it my mission to design and implement the first bully prevention program at that school.  Although it has seen changes over the past few years, it remains in place today.  The research indicates three key areas of focus for schools.  Policy:  Schools need clear definitions of bullying in place so that incidents of bullying are easily recognized.  They also need a clear policy that each student and family reads and signs off on each year. It’s difficult to hold parents responsible when they argue that they didn’t know the policy existed.  Make sure they know.  Make it as black and white as possible.  Consequences:  Clearly defined consequences for bullying must be included in the policy to be read and signed by all students and parents. When grey areas exist, people find loopholes.  Avoid the loopholes by developing a comprehensive policy that covers every possible scenario.  Education:  Regular, mandatory staff training on bullying is important. Teachers are on the front lines.  They need to be able to recognize bullying and symptoms of victimization, and have a concrete action plan.  The best way to support your teachers is to offer them resources and education as regularly as possible.  Create award programs where students are rewarded for good citizenship.

9. Consider the causes: Bullying occurs for a variety of reasons.  In some families, teasing and bullying is the norm. Family behavior models teach children how to act/interact under various circumstances. It’s important to model assertive behavior as well as empathy, honesty, and appropriate ways to problem-solve.  Open the closed doors. Many families feel that what happens behind closed doors should stay there.  The problem with this approach is that eventually your children will bring those feelings and behaviors into the community.  It’s ok to ask for help.  In fact, it’s probably the most important step families can take.  Often kids get more social recognition for negative behavior, which easily creates a pattern. Focus on the positive behaviors displayed by your children.  Extra praise never hurts, but constant nagging and negative input can cause children to feel like they have no other choice.  Jealousy and lack of social skills to cope with feelings of jealousy can cause kids to lash out at one another. Social skills development starts at home and continues in school.  Focus on teaching your children how to cope when things don’t go their way.  Past experiences of social rejection can cause kids to want to “pay it forward” to other kids. If your child has experienced social rejection get help for him so that he can process his feelings and move forward with positive coping strategies.

10. Consider grass roots: Many large organizations once started as small neighborhood initiatives.  Wouldn’t it be great if it were hip to be FAB (Families Against Bullying)?  The fact that support doesn’t currently exist on a smaller level doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.  Consider starting a neighborhood program.  Bring in local law enforcement and a child psychologist/therapist to provide parent educationAgree to a no tolerance policy for bullying in your community.  Enforce that policy when you see bullying in action. There is always power in numbers.  The only way for us to eradicate bullying is to come together as a country and stop tolerating it at all levels.

Bullying doesn’t have to be a part of our culture.  Kids don’t have to live in fear and hate themselves.  But we do have to come together and present a united front.  If you feel so inclined, please consider taking a very small first step by sharing this information with your friends and family.  Like I said, there is always power in numbers.   

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes freelance for Everyday Family, Momtastic, SafeBee for UL and She also blogs for The Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) She has a rock and roll husband and two kids. Katie believes in love, lattes, and the power of play.



    Zero Tolerance for Bullies (Tips for taking a stand on bullying)