Man standing in front of grafitti that says "#stopbullying".

Bullying: How to Recognize it and Build Resilience

Bullying is a very emotional topic for kids and parents alike. Unfortunately, we are used to hearing about bullying incidents that mostly happen during middle and high school, due to the biological, social, and emotional changes adolescents undergo during this period. [3] That being said, it’s important to emphasize that while bullying tends to be more noticed during those years, for some children it can start as early as preschool.

If you’re not certain whether something constitutes bullying or not, ask yourself these questions: Is there a power imbalance?, Is the negative behavior intentional?, and, finally, Was it a single incident or is it ongoing? 

A power imbalance makes bullying easier. The bully can be physically stronger than the victim, but that doesn’t have to be the case. These days, being popular creates the biggest power imbalance in schools and often allows spreading rumors and name-calling to be perpetrated with no repercussions.

Also, bullying is an intentional infliction of harm. Bad things can happen accidentally – if a bad message goes to the wrong number by accident, it’s not bullying. But if it’s sent with full intent, then whoever sent it could be considered a bully – if it’s not a single incident. A single bad action cannot be viewed as bullying, though it should be dealt with firmly. Bullying implies the incidents are being repeated, creating a vicious pattern. [4]

Types of bullying

Many people tend to think of bullying specifically as physical abuse. A physical act of bullying can be any situation in which the student’s physical integrity is under attack – pushing, kicking, hitting… However, it’s not the most common form of bullying today.

The two most common are verbal and relational bullying, and a very specific form that’s being practiced more frequently – cyberbullying. [3]

Verbal bullying is very common and it mostly revolves around name-calling. Relational bullying doesn’t necessarily involve face-to-face contact between the bully and the victim. Any form of social exclusion (not allowing someone into a peer group, denying them access to social activities on purpose) or rumor-spreading falls under relational bullying. Another form of relational bullying is issuing orders and ultimatums to peers in order to command more power in social circles, for example, “you can’t hang out with that person and still be part of our group ”.

Cyberbullying is a growing problem for many reasons. For one, access to technology has never been easier, and with a growing number of platforms where someone can express their opinion by sending and receiving messages, the proportion of cyberbullies is growing as well.  Instant messaging allows perpetrators to “hide behind a screen”, which instills a lot of anxiety in the victim, given that the identity of the bully is often not known. [5]

Recognizing bullying is the first step in tackling an issue that’s been going on for a very long time. However, recognizing a child who’s being bullied is just as important.

Signs that a child is being bullied

It’s not easy to recognize that a child is the victim of bullying, but you should be able to notice that something is wrong. The best thing you can do is create a loving, positive, and safe atmosphere in which your child feels comfortable enough to tell you they’re being bullied.

Bullying can have many consequences, from emotional distress to lower grades.

Behaviors resembling depression or anxiety are very common indicators that a child is being bullied. You may notice that they have trouble sleeping (insomnia, nightmares) and they look sad and worried. Consequently, their desire to go to school, as well as their grades, might be plummeting. It’s difficult for a student to concentrate on studying and paying attention in class if they’re afraid of what’s going to happen after class is out. [7] If they look fearful and anxious before going to school, or they’re constantly making up excuses to avoid going, the best thing to do is talk to them about it.

If you notice that they look nervous after interacting with technology, it could be a sign of cyberbullying. Some children will become socially isolated due to rumors being spread or name-calling, so they might not be hanging out with friends as much as they used to. [4]

In extreme cases, the child might resort to self-harm as a way to cope with stress and fear. If you notice any cuts or bruises they try to hide, you should talk to them about it. They could also start acting out in an unusual way – they could become aggressive verbally or even physically towards others, both as an outlet for frustration and out of the belief that aggression should be battled with aggression. [4]

As we mentioned before, these are some of the signs that could help you notice something’s off, but it’s difficult to know for sure unless they tell you themselves or a teacher reports it.  Remind your children often to let you know if they’re being bullied – anywhere!  Assure them that you will not overreact, but instead, will assist them in dealing with it themselves.

Why do they hide it?

The solution to this problem would be easier if all the victims of bullying came forward. Unfortunately, many students do not do so. One reason is that they don’t want to seem”weak“ in front of their peers, so they choose to take it silently rather than admit to it.  Another possibility is fear of retaliation once the bully is punished for their behavior. Last, but not least, they sometimes think their parents will want them to change schools, and they don’t want to leave their classmates and friends behind. Starting over can be very difficult, especially in adolescent years.

Because of this, we need to create a safe environment that clearly condemns bullying; we need to tackle it systematically. However, parents can do their part as well, and to help with that we’ve prepared some advice.

Building resilience

Often, we tend to (wrongly) assume that if we remove the bully, we stop the bullying. This might be the case for some children, but for most, bullying is an ongoing process that has to do with their vulnerability. And while no child is to blame for being bullied, there are some characteristics that make them susceptible to bullies, and that parents can help them strengthen.

By achieving resilience, children start feeling:

• in control of their lives

• strong enough to battle this issue

• confident that they have enough strength and outside support to do it, and

•able to communicate their problems and expect a positive outcome.

One of the characteristics that might make them vulnerable is solving problems by internalizing them. They feel anxious and depressed when dealing with stressful events, they have trouble telling anyone about it, and aren’t assertive enough. Kids like these may be perceived as easy targets who won’t retaliate if attacked. [4]

Alternatively, if children tend to externalize their problems, dealing with them by showing aggression (yelling, breaking things), their peers might not accept them, leaving them without social support and vulnerable to bullies. [4]

Once we have this in mind, we can work on strengthening the characteristics important for resilience.

1. “This is my fault”. Victims of bullying often feel they’ve done something to deserve it. Parents and teachers alike have the responsibility to talk to children and let them know that nobody deserves to be bullied. However, this might make them feel there’s nothing to be done about it; if it’s not about them, how can they change something and stop it?

It’s of the utmost importance to help children understand that bullies come after those whom they think either won’t defend themselves or appear to believe they have no one to defend them. This is what makes confidence, sense of self-efficacy and assertiveness pivotal to resilience. [2]

2. Confidence and self-efficacy. Children who have experienced bullying often don’t have a lot of confidence, and don’t perceive themselves as being in control of their lives. They don’t think they’re able to change anything, and that leaves them vulnerable. [2]

In order to be able to solve problems and acquire confidence, children need to be given two things: autonomy and support. You should encourage them, from an early age, to try and tackle the obstacles they face. If they see you believe that they’re strong enough to solve something on their own, they’ll eventually start believing it themselves. [1]

However, you should also be there for them as a safety net. They need to know that should a problem prove to be too big to solve alone, they can always confide in you and receive support and help.

3. Being assertive. When faced with bullying, vulnerable children often try to deal with it in one of two ways: they either hide and take it silently or they try to battle aggression with aggression. Neither of these options is beneficial; they should instead be taught to be assertive. This means they learn to express their emotions and thoughts, letting the bully know how they feel – that the behavior is wrong and punishable. If that doesn’t prove to be enough, assertiveness also means they can confide in their parents, friends, and teachers and expect that the problem will eventually be solved. [4]

4. Standing up against bullying. Even if your child is not the one being bullied, standing by as some other child is being abused makes an audience out of them, and that audience is often what reinforces further bullying. They should understand from a young age why bullying is wrong and, if they see it happen, they should support the child being attacked and help them report it. It’s also important to know that children who have close friends (particularly at school) have less chance of being bullied than children who have no peers to protect them. By becoming part of a peer group ready to protect their members against bullying, they are well on their way to becoming more resilient. [6]

5. Dealing with stress and emotions. The cornerstone of resilience is being able to deal with stress without being overwhelmed by anxiety. A positive reaction to stress means being able to keep a clear head and think of different ways to solve a problem. Of course, feeling sad or angry is a normal reaction to negative events, but the important thing is to not internalize or externalize.  Keeping problems and emotions to ourselves even as they overwhelm us is a mistake, but so is acting out.

A healthy reaction to stress consists of confidence in our strength to solve a problem as well as the belief that there are people in our lives who will help us if it becomes too much to handle. If you can instill that way of thinking and feeling in your child, they’ll be much more protected against any type of bullying. [4]

What can you do?

Dealing with bullying is not an easy task, and the solution is not a simple one. And as with any other problem, mistakes are always a possibility. So to help you be there for your child in the best way possible, we’ll list some of the things you shouldn’t do, and advise you on what to do instead.

Taking away their phones/computers. If your child is being cyberbullied, taking the technology away from them doesn’t solve the problem; if anything, it creates a bigger one. Many children won’t admit to being bullied because of this exact reason – fear that their parents will take their computers away from them. Instead… 

…Build resilience. Try to find out who the bully is, talk to teachers and other school staff. Taking the phone away doesn’t mean that the bullying won’t continue in “real life”. [5]

Overreacting. Similarly, you might want to change schools as soon as you hear about bullying. But what if there’s another bully in the next school? Running away from a problem doesn’t help solve it. Alternatively, some parents tell their kids to just stay put and they’ll take care of things. But solving the problem while keeping them excluded could lead the child to think they’re not strong enough to solve their own problems. So if a similar situation comes up later on, they might react even more negatively than the first time. Instead… 

…You should work on it together and discuss every possible solution with them. Once included, their confidence and perceived sense of control will grow. [1]

Telling them it’s all a part of growing up. Sure, kids can be mean,  but a joke is only a joke if both parties understand it as such. If your child is feeling negatively towards being called names or pushed around, telling them it’s all normal and that “boys will be boys” won’t help them build resilience. If anything, it will teach them that being aggressive and not respecting others’ emotions is okay. Instead…

…You should show empathy and understanding towards their feelings and work on the best possible solution – together.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Grotberg, E. (1995). A guide to promoting resilience in children: strengthening the human spirit. Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections Number 8
  2. Narayanan A. & Betts, L.R. (2014). Bullying Behaviors and Victimization Experiences Among Adolescent Students: The Role of Resilience. The Journal of Genetic Psychology Vol. 175 , Iss. 2,2014
  3. Wang, J., Iannotti, R.J., & Nansel, T.R. (2009). School Bullying Among U.S. Adolescents: Physical, Verbal, Relational and Cyber. J Adolesc Health 45(4): 368–375.
  4. Arseneault L., Bowes L. & Shakoor S. (2010). Bullying victimization in youths and mental health problems: ‘Much ado about nothing’? Psychological Medicine / Volume 40 / Issue 05/ pp 717 729
  5. https://pro.psychcentral.com/cyber-bullying-recognizing-and-treating-victim-and-aggressor/00112.html
  6. Craig, W.M., Pepler D., & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of Bullying in the Playground and in the Classroom. School Psychology International, Vol. 21(1)
  7. Juvonen, J., Wang, Z., & Espinoza, G. (2011). Bullying Experiences and Compromised Academic Performance Across Middle School Grades. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 31: 152

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