An older boy threatens a younger boy, taking his lunch money every morning on the way to school.
Three teenage girls routinely make fun of another girl in their class because she doesn’t dress the way they do.
Most adults would consider these situations as examples of bullying, perhaps not unlike treatment they experienced — or carried out — during their own childhoods.
Bullying or being bullied is just a normal part of growing up, right?
Wrong, said Elizabeth Meeker, a licensed clinical psychologist and program manager of Youth Emergency Services at Coordinated Care Services, Inc. of Rochester.
“I think what we’ve learned is that bullying is not just a rite of passage that children go through and then outgrow. It really can cause a lot of damage,” Meeker said.
As researchers and psychologists learn more about the extent of damage caused by bullying, parents have begun to pay more attention to preventing such behavior, she added.
The members of the Parent-Teacher Organization at St. Mary School in Canandaigua recently acknowledged the importance of this issue, inviting Meeker to visit the school May 17 for a presentation on “What Parents Need to Know: Effective Steps to Bullying Prevention.”
School officials can’t afford to shy away from the problem of bullying, said Ann Marie Deutsch, principal at St. Mary’s. The school routinely offers educational presentations and workshops about this topic for its students, and Deutsch said she hoped the presentation for parents would bring everyone onto the same page about bullying.
It’s important for parents and teachers alike to realize that there is a difference between bullying and bad behavior, she said.
“There’s definitely a line between bad behavior and bullying behavior. We’re just trying to raise awareness of what (each) looks like … because bullying behavior is bad behavior that doesn’t get corrected,” Deutsch said.
Bad behavior like name-calling becomes bullying if it continues even after the victim has asked for it to stop, Deutsch said.
When people hear the word “bullying,” they often think of someone who is being physically intimidated or hurt. While that is often accurate, children can be the victims of bullying behavior without being physically hurt, Meeker said.
“What we’ve learned is there’s really a lot of different types of bullying. Certainly bullying can be physical, but it can also be verbal,” Meeker told the Catholic Courier.
Name-calling is one example of verbal bullying, she noted. Another type — social bullying — often flies under the radar of parents and teachers because it takes place quietly and is not as obvious. Children and teens engage in this type of behavior when they exclude others or when they start or spread rumors about their peers, Meeker said.
In recent years a new type of bullying — cyber bullying — has emerged as well. This is bullying that takes place in a virtual world, through computers and the Internet. Sending threatening e-mail or posting embarrassing photographs and derogatory statements online — often on such social-networking sites as myspace.com — are examples of cyber bullying, she said.
“It can be very intense because when kids bully through the Internet, the victim doesn’t always know who it’s coming from,” Meeker said.
The relative anonymity of the Internet can also spur children to say vicious things online that they wouldn’t say in person, she added.
Bullying is a serious problem because it often causes depression in its victims and can lead to high drop-out rates. In extreme cases it can lead to suicide attempts, Meeker noted. Victims are not the only ones hurt by bullying behavior, however. Studies also have shown that children who bullied others in middle school grew up to have more problems with the law later in life, she added.
Traditionally, adults advised children who were being bullied that they should be more assertive and stand up for themselves. Yet Meeker said such advice puts the blame on the victims themselves and probably won’t prevent the bullying behavior from taking place.
Instead, school officials should strive to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate any sort of bullying behavior.
“The most powerful way to change is by activating the bystanders,” Meeker said. “It can be really hard because kids are afraid they might be the next target if they stand up for a child who’s being bullied.”
Safety should always be the top priority, and students shouldn’t place themselves in dangerous situations, Meeker said, noting that students can learn safe strategies for defusing bullying. Teachers and school administrators should also step in if they see bullying behavior, and parents should initiate conversations about bullying with their children.
“The most important thing is for parents to take it seriously and to let their children know that kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated,” Meeker said.
Parents also should familiarize themselves with some of the warning signs of bullying. A child who is being bullied may become depressed, avoid going to school, or suffer from headaches, stomach aches and unexplained bruises. Victims also may come home hungry — if their lunches are being stolen — or may begin taking out aggression on younger siblings, Meeker said.
On the other hand, a child who is engaging in bullying behavior may come home with unexplained new possessions. Children who bully others often also display a lack of empathy, she noted.
“Sometimes they really don’t understand the impact this could be having on another child,” Meeker said. “Bullying prevention really involves everyone. It’s not just a school issue; it’s a community issue.”