School Is Back, and So Is Bullying

Responding like a bully only makes two bullies

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school each day because they fear bullying from other students. 

Beginning in 2012, the New York State Education Department has required all public schools to file reports on incidents of bullying, harassment, intimidation or menacing. The state defines bullying and harassment as creating “hostile environments through threats, intimidation or abuse, including cyberbullying.”

Some children fear reprisal at school if they tell their parents about a bullying situation at school. But the effects of bullying may manifest as signs parents can spot at home.

“Sometimes it’s a stomachache first thing in the morning and they’re fine on weekends,” said physician Kathleen Grisanti, president and medical director of Pediatric and Adolescent Urgent Care of WNY in Rochester, Williamsville, Orchard Park and Fairport. “We suggest parents keep an eye on the timing. It could be something or someone at school they want to avoid.”

Children may also try to explain injuries, lack of interest in activities or missing or damaged possessions as bullying progresses.

Bullying behavior commonly stems from issues the bully experiences at home because of parental neglect, abuse or mistreatment. 

Children often bully as a means of acting out to get attention or as a misguided attempt at building their ego.

“The story is usually more complex than this person is good and this person is bad,” said Jessica Mitchell, Ph.D., director of community services for Ontario County Mental Health.

She added that some children make easy targets for if they are shy, lack confidence in themselves or rely too heavily upon the approval of others. When bullying starts with words, they easily play into the bully’s plans to victimize.

“Oftentimes, kids have a hard time not reacting to bullying,” Mitchell said.

She encourages parents to teach their children to not feed into bullying and to use words to express that they do not like what the bully is saying or doing. Responding like the bully only makes two bullies.

Asking bullies why they are acting this way, responding with humor or walking away can represent ways to respond to bullies.

Bullies need to learn to solve problems in a way that is not aggressive. Social skills like taking turns, losing a game or making friends may be lacking. While other children cannot be expected to fill in these gaps, becoming aware of why the bully may act out can be helpful in responding in more constructive ways.

Some children bully because they are anxious about social settings. It is easier to assure a dominant social status by force than to risk it by playing nice. Extending friendship to these children may cause their tough kid facade to crumble.

“In general, we’ve got to work on building resilience, teaching them how to cope with situations that might cause frustration and hurt feelings, learning how to express feelings in a way that’s appropriate and problem solving,” Mitchell said.

When strategies like these do not work, or if a situation is immediately violent, children need to know that they should let a teacher, coach or school counselor know right away and tell their parents at home.

“Engaging the teachers and other staff can offer help when other responses don’t work,” Mitchell said. “It’s not the children’s responsibility to make sure the environment is safe at school. It’s always the responsibility of the school and parents working together to address that problem.”

Many children feel uncomfortable sharing about bullying outside their home. However, telling a school official about the bullying is usually necessary to resolve it. If this does not help the situation and it continues for a long time, children may need mental health treatment because of the stress and anxiety it causes.

Coping with Bullying offers a few tips to help bystanders deescalate a bullying situation:

• Question the bullying behavior. Simple things like changing the subject or questioning the behavior can shift the focus.

• Use humor to say something funny and redirect the conversation.

• There is strength in numbers, too! Bystanders can intervene as a group to show there are several people who don’t agree with the bullying.

• Walk with the person who is the target of bullying to help diffuse potential bullying interactions.

• Reach out privately to check in with the person who was bullied to let them know you do not agree with it and that you care. It makes a difference.