By Carla Garrity, Ph.D., Mitchell Baris, Ph.D., and William Porter, Ph.D.
Many things have changed in the bully field in the 12 years since we wrote Bully-Proofing Your Child: A Parent’s Guide, and soon we will be updating the book. Bullying takes place in even more ways today, at younger ages, and it is more difficult to spot.
In this blog, we will discuss three key areas that parents need to understand today: climate, cyberbulling, and being an upstander instead of a bystander.
The climate of the individual school is an essential piece of bully prevention. Climate means engagement with the school community. Think for a moment about whether you, as a parent, feel connected to your child’s school. Is there a community that welcomes you? Do you feel a connection to at least one person in the school? If your child has special needs or special interests, do you know if there is a sense of belonging, be it a teacher who listens and cares, a club, athletics, cultural arts, or anything that represents the uniqueness that defines your child?
The past 10 years have taught us that students who feel engaged, have a sense of belonging, and experience a welcoming school climate are far less likely to experience bullying. Parents must feel connected as well as model respect and engagement with the school. Do you know what is happening at school? Are events held at a time you can attend? Does someone speak your language, respect your culture, and listen when you express concerns? These are all aspects of a positive school climate.
Anything transmitted electronically is likely to be permanent and to spread quickly, whether it is true or not. Many students do not grasp the risk associated with social networking, online groups, and Internet communication. Parents must teach their children that there is no privacy. Rumors can spread at the touch of a cell phone button, lies can be perpetrated and spread, and pictures can be manipulated. The most common methods of cyberbullying are:
- Sending text or digital imaging messages that are mean or threatening
- Posting private information about someone through e-mail or comments on a website or chat room
- Excluding someone from an online group
Bullies enjoy power and often lack the mature social skills required for face-to-face communication. The Internet is an easy medium for a bully to remain anonymous while harassing or victimizing someone. So what can parents do?
- Educate yourself and your child. The Cyberbullying Research Center provides up-to-date information, research-based fact sheets, and guides to specific forms of cyberbullying, such as sexting. These can be found at: www.cyberbullying.us
- Make certain anti-bullying rules at your child’s school include policies that address cyberbullying
- Monitor your child’s use of computers and install filtering and tracking software on all computers to which your child has access
- Discuss with your child the harm caused by cyberbullying and the risk associated with posting personal information online
3. Be an Upstander, Not a Bystander
Schools that create a caring community of students and adults minimize bullying. This means students feel engaged with peers and can identify an adult at the school whom they trust. This also means parents are involved and have a personal relationship with one or more adults within the school.
There is a new term being used in the bully field today that grew out of the caring community concept. Upstander is the word for students and parents who speak up and intervene when they witness bullying. To be an upstander, a student needs to be able to recognize and distinguish bullying from normal peer conflict and harassment. Below is a brief overview:
- Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and involves an imbalance of power or strength. Usually, it is repeated over time. Traditionally, bullying has involved actions such as hitting or punching (physical bullying), teasing or name calling (verbal bullying), or intimidation through gestures or social exclusion. Technology now has provided another means of bullying called cyberbullying, or online social cruelty. An imbalance of power is not always evident in electronic bullying, as the instigator may not be known to the victim. Often this form of bullying involves sending mean or threatening messages or images; posting sensitive and private information about another person; or pretending to be someone else in order to make someone look bad.
- Bullying is about power. One person has power over another, and this can be physical, social, intellectual, or psychological. The bully often feels entitled and superior.
- Girls are more likely to use social/relational aggression, which involves behaviors to intimidate or control by damaging friendships, reputations, or status. These include gossiping, spreading rumors, giving someone the silent treatment, publically humiliating someone, or excluding someone from a group.
Remember, not all conflict is bullying. Knowing how to recognize the difference means knowing when to be an upstander. The more parents understand about bullying, the more empowered they will be to help prevent and stop it.
Carla Garrity, Ph.D., Mitchell Baris, Ph.D., and William Porter, Ph.D., are coauthors of the Bully-Proofing series. Garrity practices child psychology at the Neuro-Developmental Center, a multidisciplinary group for the assessment and treatment of children. Baris is a practicing therapist, mediator, and consultant in Boulder, Colorado. Porter worked in community mental health for Denver General Hospital prior to joining the Cherry Creek School District, where he has directed a wide variety of student programs for more than 22 years.