Is name-calling and teasing just a part of growing up, a rite of passage that all kids go through? Are adults making too much of a fuss about it? Speak to senior citizens and they will recall like it was yesterday, the name of the kid who tormented them in the schoolyard, or the child that stood up for them in the third grade. There are wounds that have lasted a lifetime. Bullying now has reached epidemic proportions in our schools and in cyberspace through various electronic devices. Confronting this problem should be on the forefront of every parent and school’s agenda.
As a teacher, I have witnessed the wicked ways that girls tease and torment each other. As a mother, I have seen the devastating use of social media to destroy a child’s image and self-esteem. Many Staten Islanders have seen or read about the horrendous effects as some bullied children sadly felt the need to resort to self-mutilation or ultimately, suicide.
My research on this subject included participation in a webinar on Bullying, Teen Cutting & Self-Injury Behaviors, as well as interviewing two experts in the subject: a Staten Islander Social Worker and Child Protection Agent, and an author from Ireland who has written a book and hosts a website to promote anti-bullying around the world. Clearly, these problems are not unique to the United States.
As a parent, we may not always be aware of our child’s situation in school. Working parents, for example, may not see their children directly after school and by the time they are reunited at the dinner table, the child may have diffused and not voluntarily bring the subject to surface.
There’s a good chance your kid won’t walk up to you and say, “I’m getting teased and bullied at school. The kids are calling me names.” Instead, it may manifest itself by your child saying, “I don’t want to go to school today.” If this seems to be happening a lot, consider the possibility that bullying might be the reason behind these mysterious sick days. Also, look for signs that kids are hurting themselves. Self-mutilation can be a sign. For boys, one classic symptom of being teased too much is that they are terrified to go to the bathroom. They won’t go all day at school, then will race home and head straight to the bathroom every day. These are all possible signals that your child might be the target of teasing at school.
Interview with Child Protection Agent,
Melissa Sugarman, LMSW
Q. If your child comes to you and complains about being bullied, what is the best thing to do?
A. Listen carefully to everything they tell you, allow them to vent, and try to understand everything that took place and assess everyone’s roles in the situation. Sometimes stories change as they are being retold, especially among younger children. Reassure them that excessive teasing, being mean or any kind of physical aggression is not okay. Let them know you are on their side and will do everything to insure that it stops before it gets worse. Try to be supportive but neutral when he’s talking. When you react too strongly to what your child is saying, he might stop talking because he’s afraid he’s going to upset you.
Bullies tend to single out those they can get a reaction from; they choose kids who get upset easily and are sensitive. They also look for kids who won’t stand up for themselves, or who they can overpower. It’s important to teach your child how to react.
Teach your child to avoid bullies at school or in the playground and to go to an adult if they feel unsafe at any time. Also teach your child to not react to rude or negative remarks that are said to him or her. Teach them to have control over what is going on around them. Let them know they have the power to stand up for themselves or just walk away if they choose. They should also know that many adults would help them if they were in trouble. Tell them it is okay to go the lunch ladies, the bus matron, etc.
If your child has had issues with bullying in the past, make sure to stay abreast of the situation even if it must be done discretely. Children tend to befriend each other even after incidents. The older they get, the more important it is be aware of the groups your child affiliates with. It is not unusual for older kids to have different cliques of friends, some that are kept a secret. Know the company your child keeps.
Q. As a parent, what can I do to stop the bullying?
A. If your child is being bullied, it’s most likely that this is taking place in school, where they spend the majority of their day. Set up an appointment with the teacher; don’t just mention these things in passing or during dismissal. A request for an immediate appointment will convey the gravity of the situation. No teacher wants this happening to his or her students and may very well be unaware. Kids are smart enough not to do these things in front of adults. Nobody wants to get caught.
In more serious incidents, such as physical abuse, it may be necessary to speak to administration and find out what their policies are on bullying. If the problem continues and the school does not seem to be helping, set up another meeting with the school and have the so called “bully’s” parents present as well. If the complaint cannot be investigated at the school level due to the nature and seriousness of the allegation(s), the principal should consult with the Office of School and Youth Development.
Q. What if my child won’t talk to me about being bullied?
A. Sometimes it takes a while for a child to open up about being bullied. This may have to do with the stigma and embarrassment that comes from being a victim of bullying. Reach out to your child’s school and speak with the guidance counselor or social worker. These professionals are trained to handle situations like this. Ask that the guidance counselor or social worker speak with your child about bullying. They will be reassured that bullying is nothing to be embarrassed about, and after some time they will eventually begin to open up to you. The best advice I can give is not to push them to speak. Pressuring your child into anything is, in its own way, a form of bullying.
Q. What about when it’s gone beyond verbal abuse and there is a physical threat?
A. Physical threats are constituted as a crime. If your child has been physically assaulted, or even threatened with physical harm, this now turns into a police matter– no matter what age the child or the aggressor is. The aggressor could be charged as a juvenile delinquent and will be seen by a judge in Family Court. The result may be probation, placement, or mandated services such as seeking psychiatric help on a regular basis among other requirements.
Most parents do not realize that bullying is serious enough to get the police involved. If you do not feel that your child is safe in their school, the Department of Education will provide a safety transfer.
Q. What is cyberbullying? What can parents do to promote safe use of the Internet?
A. Cyberbullying, which is seen in both adults and children, is the use of technology, i.e. the Internet, social media websites, text messaging, etc, with the intention to target, threaten or harass another person. To promote safe use of the Internet, parents should ensure that their children’s Internet use is monitored. Parents have access to parental controls on the Internet, so that they can limit the amount of time a child spends on the Internet and limit which websites can be visited. For parents who allow their children on social media websites, they should make sure that their children provide them with the passwords and parents should sporadically check in to make sure that there is no inappropriate behavior going on.
In most cases, children know more about cyberbullying than adults do. In these situations, it is important to turn the “bystanders” into upstanding citizens. When children witness bullying situations, especially online, it is critical that they speak up and help put an end to it. Bystanders need to intervene. Oftentimes after a tragedy, it becomes known that the majority of bystanders knew what was going on and said or did nothing.
It is critical that other children join in to defeat the culture of bullying and stand up for each other with character and empathy. These are traits that begin in the home and transform children into solid, upstanding citizens. Bystanders need to intervene and stand up to defend and support their bullied peers. It could save a life.
By Staten Island educator, Marianna Randazzo