Myth 2: Adults Know What They Are Doing When It Comes to Bullying Prevention (Part 2 of 3)
By Kathleen Keelan
Often, due to our overreactions or underreactions, well-meaning adults do not understand the complexities that children face when it comes to bullying situations. By trying to apply adult solutions to children’s problems, they make the situation worse.
In spite of our best efforts, most adults generally do not know how to deal effectively with bullying situations. Sadly, this includes the very people who need to understand the dynamic most, including teachers, administrators, counselors, parents, superintendents, paraprofessionals, and bus drivers, to name a few.
Then there are the TV producers, investigative reporters, researchers, movie makers, movie stars, public service announcement producers, pop singers, and talk show hosts, who are also trying to help solve the bullying issues of our youth and usually coming up short.
Lastly, we have the more well-informed but less connected researchers and college professors, who have studies and surveys and graphs, but fall short of producing real answers for real kids in real situations.
Attempts to address the problem through movies, studies, one-day school assemblies, policies, legislation, surveys, and conferences don’t really help the children for a number of reasons.
A perfect example is one-day assemblies aimed at giving kids the opportunity to let others in their class know about some hardships they have experienced. One-day assemblies that “challenge” children to stop bullying one another are generally effective for the rest of that day. This type of oversimplification of the issue is what frustrates children who are in the trenches of bullying.
Take antibullying programs that reward kids for what we consider “standing up for others.” Students may perceive earning these “rewards” as attempts to buddy up with teachers and other adults in the building to win their approval. As a result, the kids who buddy up with the adults may lose social collateral with their peers. Thus, there is a disincentive to “stand up for others” the next time a bullying situation occurs.
Another example: the public service announcement campaign that asks kids to wait out the frustration they may be experiencing at school because eventually things will “get better.” Many celebrities have lent their clout to the “It Gets Better” effort. Some children may have benefited from this message, but I feel that it is a message of false hope and can be misleading. It also gets adults off the hook in terms of making the environment better for kids.
I feel strongly that kids who are teased for issues such as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) identity—who have been the target of this message—should not have to wait for things to get better at school. If there is a hint of this type of prejudice and we, as adults, are aware of it, then relying on messages that make promises of relief in the future is really morally reprehensible.
How Can We Really Help?
Where do we go wrong? In virtually all situations we are guilty of overreacting or underreacting. Remember, it is very difficult for children to come to an adult and ask for help when they believe they are being bullied. If the adult brushes it off, it can be devastating. Conversely, when we completely overreact by doing something like pulling a child from a particular school due to bullying, we are also doing the child a disfavor.
It is important to be aware of exactly what constitutes “bullying.” The research Dr. Dan Olweus did in the 1980s is still an excellent guide, which has helped me in this field many times. Dr. Olweus began his research in 1983 in northern Norway, where three adolescent boys died by suicide. The act was most likely a consequence of severe bullying by peers, prompting the county’s Ministry of Education to initiate a national campaign against bullying in schools.
Dr. Olweus, considered the “pioneer,” crafted the following definition, which is still widely used today:
“A person is being bullied when he or she is exposed repeatedly over time to negative action on the part of one of more persons. Negative action is when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words, or in other ways.”
If we look closely at the definition, we can see it has elements that can help adults avoid overreacting or underreacting to bullying. Bullying is not just about one person having the power; it is also about the victim not wanting the particular type of interaction to take place.
More time spent with children and less time spent on statistics is one solution to reducing bullying. Our reactions and our attempts to deal with the problem are often to benefit ourselves, to make us feel like we are doing something. However, unless we actually talk with the children, we may be making things worse.
Adults’ knee-jerk reactions, albeit understandable, do not always help reduce bullying in schools. It would behoove us as adults to spend a great deal of time trying to figure out exactly the best way to approach a specific bullying situation in order to actually help a child.
Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.