by Dr. Rachna Sharma
Bullying is a complex topic that can be thought of in so many ways and from so many different perspectives. It can be looked at through the eyes of the people who get bullied; the ones who are doing the bullying; the parents and peers of the bullies or the bullied; and even the teachers and other school personnel. Over the past few years, bullying has become so common that it can almost be considered to be a pandemic. It is a complicated and growing problem that needs to be addressed and identified early on by all people involved so that it does not gain strength and continue to grow. To do this, we can start by trying to understand what constitutes bullying and also the effects of bullying.
Bullying is repeated harmful behavior where one or more people in a position of power deliberately abuses, picks on, intimidates or coerces another individual. The position of power can either be in terms of physical strength or social standing and the aggressive behavior can be verbal or physical. Some typical examples of bullying can be assault, tripping, shoving, intimidation, destruction of ones’ property, demand for money, name calling and rumor spreading. Bullying also comes with the intention to hurt the individual, either physically or psychologically. While conflict between individuals is a normal part of childhood and adolescence, bullying takes this conflict to another level. Not all teasing and taunting equivocate bullying and it is important to make this distinction so interventions can be done when necessary. There are certain characteristics that must be present in order to constitute true bullying. The behavior must be intentional, meaning it is a deliberate attempt to hurt another person. It must be repeated towards the same person or group of people. Lastly, there has to be a power imbalance, meaning that the person bullying should have more physical or social power than the child or children being bullied. There are four main types of bullying: 1) physical bullying 2) verbal bullying 3) social bullying (ex. Rumor spreading) and 4) cyberbullying (sending hurtful messages or postings on social media, such as Facebook.) Cyberbullying has been growing in frequency and its effects are proving to be very severe due to the increased range of people that it is able to reach.
There are mainly three recognized roles in a bullying situation, that of the victim, that of the bully and that of the bystander. A bystander can be either helpful by trying to stand up for the victim or can exacerbate the situation by joining or egging on the bully. Very often, a bystander may join in on the bullying out of their own fear of being bullied or desire to fit into a certain social group. Very often, lines get drawn between friends as a result of this.
Bullying is a problem that is affecting millions of students around the world causing children and adolescents to wake up terrified to go to school. School attendance and performance are impacted by this growing issue and it can cause physical and emotional damage that can extend far beyond childhood. It has direct and indirect consequences on not only the victim but on the bully itself. Bullying is very common in elementary school but also occurs in middle and high school. While studies indicate bullying occurs at lesser rates in middle and high school, one has to acknowledge that bullying is also more underreported at later ages. Younger children may be more apt to report to their parents or teachers that bullying is occurring, while older children are more likely to stay quiet. The reasons for this are many. It can be fear of retaliation. It can be embarrassment and shame. It can be thinking that telling may make things worse for them. Kids may not want to worry their parents and may be scared that they will be looked at negatively by their peers for being a “snitch.” Regardless of the reason, victims very often stay quiet and as a result, suffer the lasting consequences that bullying has on people. This can include increased stress and low self-esteem. It can include physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches. Victims are also at an increased risk of developing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks and eating disorders. To cope with bullying, children may turn to cutting and in extreme cases have thoughts and acts of suicide. It has to be understood that this cannot be taken lightly and cannot be assumed to stop without intervention. When children are allowed to be bullied, they are being forced to fear their environments and to feel unsafe in a place where they should feel safe and be focused on learning. They will feel insecure, incapable and lack confidence in almost all interactions and situations in their lives. Kids who have been bullied significantly have an increased tendency towards violence and suicidal behavior. Recent incidents of school violence scream at us to not ignore this and to take action.
So how can we do this? It is all about education, communication and intervention. As adults, we need to be aware of and be active in working against bullying from taking flight and spreading. Bullying does happen most when adults are not around so it is important to teach and educate your children on what bullying is, how harmful it can be to others and how to handle a bully. Start by instilling confidence from an early age because the confident kids are the ones who will be better able to stand up for themselves. The kids that walk with their heads held high and who understand that respect and kindness is an important part of human interaction are going to be the ones to feel empowered to stand up for themselves. Furthermore, by teaching values to your children and by teaching kids how to treat others with respect and kindness, you can also decrease the likelihood of your child becoming a bully. As parents, there are things you can do to teach your child how to handle a bully. A bully will only attack people who he/she feels are attackable. They tend to thrive on the reaction they get so one of the most important techniques to teach your child to avoid being bullied is to ignore and walk away. Yes initially, it may get worse as the bully strives to get a reaction, however eventually the bully will end up getting bored seeing that there is no reaction and will move on. Try not to show anger or fear, as again this will only ignite the bully. Teach your children to feel confident enough to turn to an adult for support, especially if situations get violent. As parents, you must try to develop an open line of communication with your children so that they feel comfortable in sharing with you what is happening in school. In some cases, this will be the only way you will know what is really going on. Encourage your children to talk about what is happening. Again, this must start in the early, formative years. Always ask your child about their day. Ask them specifics in an open ended way. Since bullying occurs when adults are not around, ask them specifically about lunch time, recess and their bus ride to and from school. Don’t be afraid to ask your children if anyone was mean or hurtful to them. Communication is key. It is keeping one’s feelings and fears in that will provide a petri dish for mental health issues to develop as a result of bullying. If you do find out that your child is being bullied, get them the help that they need. Encourage your child to talk to their guidance counselor or others to gain the support that they need. Encourage your child to find and focus on their real friends for support. Find out from your school what can be done and what measures the school is willing to take to stop it from occurring. Don’t do nothing and hope that it will stop. This will leave your child feeling unheard and unimportant. Do take cues from your child on how they would like to proceed so that they are involved in the process.
Nobody is immune from being targeted by a bully. And no matter who you are or where you come from, being bullied is a painful and hurtful experience. Schools everywhere are starting to recognize the profound effects of bullying and are using outreach and anti-violence programs to help students understand the effects bullying can have. As parents, advocate for your child. Understanding bullying and recognizing the profound effects it has on all involved are the first of many steps to help win the fight against bullying.
Dr. Rachna Sharma is an experienced psychiatrist with board certifications in both General and Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry. She completed her medical internship and adult psychiatry training at Stony Brook University Medical Center and her fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NSLIJHS/Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. She also completed her psychodynamic psychotherapy training the NYU Psychoanalytical Institute. Dr. Sharma specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, PTSD and eating disorders. While she has extensive training and experience with prescribing medications, she also has extensive experience in providing individual psychotherapy. She also serves as a consultant to the Stony Brook World Trade Center Health Program. She is a partner at Long Island Behavioral Medicine, PC, a private practice in Islandia, New York. Dr. Sharma is also an active member of various professional organizations including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Suffolk County Medical Society, Medical Society of the State of New York, National Eating Disorder Association, and the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals. Dr. Sharma provides school evaluations, individual evaluations and treatment for children and adolescents ages 5 and older and for adults through geriatric ages.