Did you hear last week's KQED Forum program on bullying? The guests tackled the subject of bullying among youth broadly and intelligently, touching briefly on the subject in the title ("Cool Kids Get Bullied Too."). One of the guests, Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at UC Davis co-authored a recent study which he shared with listeners in conversation with Dr. Susan Eva Porter, a high school principal and author of the book, "Bully Nation," and Rick Phillips, who runs the non-profit, Community Matters, which seeks to address the issue in schools. I recommend giving the program a listen, but I will share a few of the key points with you here.
All of the panelists agreed that we live in a "culture of meanness" in which sarcasm and sassiness are prized and celebrated by the many available media platforms. Many kids attribute sarcasm with popularity and kindness with a lack thereof. They would rather be popular and sarcastic, than lose social standing by being kind.
One of the interesting study findings presented by Dr. Faris, is that kids who are climbing the social ladder are often bullied more the higher they climb, and it is often their friends who are doing the bullying. For many of these kids, the pain they experience is quite severe, and they often have high rates of depression and suicide, particularly when compared with the kids who have grown "accustomed" to bullying as a result of occupying the lower strata of the social hierarchy for some time.
Many of Dr. Porter's contributions, were practical and helpful for parents and professionals who work with youth. Her approach reminded me of psychodynamic psychotherapy in the way it sought a deeper understanding of the problem through curiosity, exploration and thinking in terms of a dynamic. Dr. Porter also normalizes aggression - we all have it, children included. The goal is not to get rid of aggression or label it as "bad," but to learn about how to express anger and competition in healthy ways.
According to Dr. Porter, most bullying occurs within a dynamic, or a context in which all participants play a role. When we see bullying as black and white, as comprised of a perpetrator and victim, we not only oversimplify the situation, but we create an atmosphere in which it is difficult for the children to critically think and learn. The overuse of the word "bully" in our larger culture has contributed to this phenomena, and created a climate in which people no longer think about exactly what is happening. What we really want our kids to do is to be able to critically think about their behavior and its impacts on others, and most importantly, to learn from it. Being labeled a bully, or a victim, can have psychological implications, particularly around how the developing child thinks about him or herself. Rather than rushing to judgement, it is important for caring adults to engage kids in a conversation about exactly what happened, and to illicit from the kids how they think their actions made others feel.
Social media has contributed to an increase in the severity of bullying and its impacts. We all know this intuitively, but academics agree, things are just harsher today. When bullying happened in our youths, there was an endpoint. Now, a kid might "share" something on social media, which then gets "shared" hundreds of times, and then takes on a life of its own in cyberspace. This doesn't make the kid's actions 100 times worse, it just makes the impact worse. We need to keep that in mind when we judge social media bullying. This points to the tremendous need our youths have to be supervised and guided in their online usage before these incidents occur, as well as a need to have conversations which encourage their critical thinking and compassion for themselves and others.
How can you help protect your child from bullying? One way is to stop the overuse of the word "bullying." Help your child to describe exactly what they are experiencing and feeling. Know that experiencing hardship builds character, and that navigating a tough situation can actually build self-esteem and resilience in your child.
Think and talk about the situation as a dynamic between two people. Help your child, in whichever position they find themselves, to be curious with you as you unpack what is happening and why. Even if you have an idea as to why this is happening, try to hold your thoughts and actively elicit your child's thoughts.
Reinforce at home the importance of kind behavior by modeling kindness yourself. You are your child's first teacher, and they observe carefully the way you treat them, your family and friends, and yourself. Strive to be kind to all, most importantly, yourself. Watch what you say around your child. Do you talk about others in a mean or harsh way? When you have a problem with a friend or family member, do you seek them out to have a constructive conversation?
In my practice, I have supported kids who are actively struggling with peer relationships, as well as their families. It is important to address these issues sooner, rather than later, as some kids who are social outsiders in early childhood, find acceptance and belonging in their teen years with peers who use drugs or engage in other risky behaviors. Often, substances can provide kids with a temporary reprieve from the painful experience of not belonging, and that is not a healthy nor viable solution! I invite you to call me to discuss your concerns at any time.
There is still so much we need to learn as a society about bullying both as a larger phenomenon, and on an individual or school level. What are your thoughts about bullying? Have you had any positive experiences resolving a difficult social situation with your child? Please, feel free to leave a comment below.