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Bullying and Peer Abuse Continued

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The most effective ways of shutting down bullying involve rallying the social community within which the bullying takes place to soundly reject that bullying. For school-aged children, bullying generally takes place within a school community, where the tormentors attend the same school as the victim. It is therefore appropriate for parents to report bullying to school administrators so that they can take action. Parents need to open a conversation with children's teachers or coaches in order to raise awareness of the problem, and coordinate efforts to make the school, team, and club environments safe and nurturing for everyone involved.

bully word collageSchool action on bullying prevention requests is not always a given, and therefore parents may need to push the school to take appropriate action, including through appropriate legal channels if other approaches do not produce results. Historically, many schools have taken an "ignore it and it will go away" approach to bullying. More recently, schools have become more willing to engage. Many schools now can and do implement school-wide anti-bullying programs designed to engage the school community to become aware that the bullying is happening and that it should not be tolerated. Such programs rally school authority figures to promote the message that bullying is abuse and should not be supported. They also work to teach the same message to students who can then exert peer pressure on each other to make bullying "not cool". Nothing takes the wind out of a bully's sails like rejection from the people he or she was trying to impress. In other words, if bullying ceases to be perceived as an effective display of dominance within the school culture, its frequency will lessen.

As bullying is abusive in nature and can take the form of criminal assault, parents should not rule out the possibility of calling the police so that an official record of the abuse can be created, taking children to the hospital so that their injuries can be officially cataloged and documented, and even consulting with legal counsel to brainstorm ways to use the law to compel the abuse to stop. Setting up official documentation that bullying is occurring is important beyond any legal action that might be taken, in that it demonstrates that real third-party-recognized victimization is occurring. If parents efforts to shut down bullying behavior should ever become a contest between the word of the victims' parents against the word of the bullies' parents, these records may become crucial in swaying public and legal opinion in favor of the victim.

Even if their own children are not bullied or bullies, parents can help along the process of changing children's culture to one that does not tolerate bullying by encouraging their own children to help discourage bullying they see occurring between other peers, even when they are not directly involved. Children should not be encouraged to step into the middle of a violent situation. However, children can help interrupt bullying instances in more subtle ways by simply being present, or by changing the conversation or activity which effectively shifts the social focus away from assault. Through this process, parents can help teach their children about empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. By helping victims, children can do a good deed by being kind to kids who struggle to make friends or social connections, in the process, improving their own self-esteem and the self-esteem of the picked-on kids. There but for the grace of God go I.

Parents who believe their own children may be bullying others need to send their children a clear and unequivocal message that bullying behavior is not acceptable. Adults need to explain and to illustrate, in a developmentally appropriate way, why bullying behaviors are hurtful and unacceptable. After they do this, children who have been hurting and tormenting others should receive immediate and appropriate consequences that fit the situation. If 10-year-old Sean is taking 9-year-old Jamal's personal video game player and teasing him with it, Sean's parents may want to take away all of Sean's video games for 2 weeks.

Apart from providing punishing consequences for bullying, parents of children who bully need to make a judgment call as to whether their children can benefit from experiences which can help them grow their empathy. If Sean is suitable for the placement, his parents may want to have Sean perform some kind of community service, for instance, at an animal shelter, helping animals that have been abused and abandoned and have little power. Being forced to confront and take care of neglected creatures may help empathy dawn in Sean's mind. However, if parents have misjudged the severity of Sean's social deficits (e.g., if Sean is sociopathic or conduct disordered), this kind of placement may simply provide him with an opportunity to torment animals - a bad outcome by any measure. Parents who suspect their child may be conduct-disordered, and on their way to becoming an antisocial personality disordered adult should immediately consult with a mental health professional to learn ways to counter this trajectory.

Shutting down bullying is a difficult task which is sometimes quite difficult if not impossible to accomplish. If parents find that they are making little headway in protecting their children from assault despite their having made strenuous efforts, at least some consideration should be given to the idea of moving the child away from the social milieu in which the bullying is occurring. This might be accomplished by moving the entire family to a new home in a new neighborhood (if such a thing is financially possible for the family to accomplish!), or more simply by making a case to the school board that it is in the child's best interests to be transferred to another school. Moving the child out of the bullying environment is unquestionably an extreme action which only makes sense after other alternatives have been exhausted. However, it should be actively considered if there is no other practical way to shut down the bullying. Parents' failure to protect a bullied child may result in serious and life-long emotional, social, academic and occupational harm to that child.