From the school yard to the board room and, now, to the football field, bullying is a sad and stark reality. I have watched with great interest and great sadness the events unfolding over the last few weeks in the Miami Dolphins football organization. While many of the comments across the airwaves have revolved around shining a light on detrimental and archaic aspects of “locker room culture,” the silver lining, for parents anyway, is the shattering of the myths that only “weaklings” get bullies. That stereotypical picture of the scrawny guy at the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the big muscle-headed guy has been turned on its ear. Anyone can be a bully. Anyone can be the target of a bully…even a big, strong, seemingly invincible football lineman.
So why on earth does someone choose to bully? We assume bullies have low self-esteem and bully a “weaker” person to make themselves feel better. While this is sometimes the case, it is not always. As in the case of Jonathan Martin, the target isn’t always “weaker” and many bullies have very high self-esteem. Many definitions of bullying abound but the one that cuts to the core of the true nature of bullying is any act that devalues another human being. At the heart of bullying is a feeling of contempt. A bully despises his or her target and doesn’t feel they aren’t worthy of respect. They turn the target into an “it” rather than a person.
Bullying isn’t a secret event. It most often happens in front of an audience. In fact, a 1995 Toronto study showed 85 percent of bullying episodes involved peers in some capacity. We can only assume this number is higher today with the explosion of social media over the past several years. The sentiment that echoes through the Miami Dolphins case is why didn’t anyone know? Why didn’t anyone do anything to help?
Targets and witnesses alike don’t report bullying incidents for a variety of reasons. However, sadly enough, we have seen that even when adults are aware of bullying, we are often ill equipped to handle it effectively. Kids who are new to a school or neighborhood can frequently become the target of a bully, so what can we do to “bully proof” our children?
A central action for parents is to reinforce the understanding that their children don’t have to be friends with everyone, but they do have to show everyone the basic respect of human dignity. If your child is the target, the first thing to do is reassure them that none of the bullying is their fault, you believe them, and you are here to help. Don’t try to rationalize or explain the bully’s behavior. Reassure your child and focus on strategies that will help them.
In an earlier blog post I talked about using “I messages” for effective communication (Taking the Guessing Out of Moving). I messages are an effective strategy to help targets and witnesses be assertive and stand up to bullying without being aggressive, which can potentially lead to increased intensity in bullying or physical altercations. Having at least one good friend is a powerful antidote to bullying. When you move into a new neighborhood, help your child get acquainted with kids in the neighborhood. Make the time to invite one or two kids over (no matter how many boxes are still left to unpack!!) to allow your child to get to know new people on his or her home turf.
Finally, be prepared to advocate for your child with the school. Often times bullying happens off school grounds so school personnel are limited in what actions they can take directly. However, making them aware of the bullying incidents will (hopefully!) create greater awareness. Know the anti-bullying policies and laws in your school district and your state so you are better able to stand up for your child or for any target of bullying.
For more information on bullying and how to help your children visit http://www.pacer.org/bullying/. To find out what anti-bullying laws exist in your state, visit http://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/.
For more information about the Moving Families Initiative, please visit www.movingfamiliesinitiative.com.