Laura O'Reilly is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and member of Trietsch. On August 26 at 8pm she will be one of the therapists on our Facebook Live podcast panel. Below, Laura takes us on a deep dive into bullying. If you have a kid in school at any age, this is a helpful read to better understand the impact of bullying and what you can do to help depending on the age of your child. Learn more about Laura's counseling practice and make an appointment at https://www.lauraoreillylcsw.com/.
As children of God we are called to love all of our neighbors; even those that are hard to love, even those that mean to hurt us or our kids, even bullies…. this does not exempt their behavior, but opens our hearts to understanding and empathy… ugh, just rereading that makes me uncertain if I can really do that as a parent. How would that look to love a bully? I am sure some of you will whole-heartedly understand my hesitancy with this and maybe side more with the old adage: "hurt me once, shame on you, hurt me twice shame on me" or "what goes around comes around."
However, this summer I was a Small Group Leader at a Presbyterian high school youth conference outside of Asheville, North Carolina with over 1,000 youth (ask me about this conference sometime, I'd love to tell you all about it). The theme of the conference week was: "Let Love Lead." We talked about the riskiness of love, and how loving the "hard to love" is challenging, painful work; in short: sometimes love stinks. Yet, we mostly spent hours sharing transformational stories of the powerhouse that is God's love in our lives, especially that God's love transforms pain. The experience reinforced in me my purpose to love ALL my neighbors. So, mark me down for "yes" on the first statement. Yes, I believe this is our purpose: to love our neighbors as ourselves - even the ones that hurt us and our kids - and that this is the most worthy of pursuits. In fact, letting love lead in my life means adjusting how I love myself, my kids, my neighbors, and on and on; it even shapes how I work as a therapist. In this post I want to detail how it could look to love ourselves, our kids, and other people's kids; AKA the bullies of the world.
Writing about bullying is a challenging task. Bullying can happen anywhere and at any stage of our lives. Also, bullying comes in all degrees of intensity and forms. When one even mentions bullying, difficult emotions or memories often rise up in us. In short, bullying is complex and varied. It is a topic that is hard to wrap my arms around, as it is hard to capture the entirety of it all in one fell swoop. The field of research about bullying feels young to me and research based interventions only now seem to be really starting to gain steam on what bullying truly is and how do we best intervene. So, we are left with a lot of anecdotes and gut feelings.
In this post it is my aim to deliver concrete ideas and skills, for parents of: grade school, middle school, and high school children. I want to give you ideas that you can incorporate into your everyday life; along with research and resources that I utilize in my practice. Lastly, I want to focus on the idea that our faith is the lens that we understand human behavior through and uniquely equips us with the capacity for love always. I write with the assumption that you are truly interested in the topic because you have a personal connection or a need to know more…. hence this post is lengthy and broken into sections to help guide you. At the end of the post you will find a list of resources.
Definition: We know that bullying is about power, one person using their power over another in an attempt to control. We also know that bullying is not a one time event, it is a pattern of behavior happening more than once.
4 Types of bullying: physical (hitting, pushing, etc…), verbal (threatening, teasing), social (excluding people, spreading rumors), cyber (social media, text messages)
How common is bullying: The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey gleaned that 17% of high school students have been bullied (physical, verbal, social) in their lifetime, and 13% cyber bullied. That number jumps dramatically if the high school student identified as LGBTQ+ in which 33% reported being bullied (physical, verbal, social) and 27% reported cyber bullying. Another study from PACER's National Bully Prevention Center found that 60% of children with disabilities reported being bullied in their lifetime.
How do I know if my child is being bullied?
This is a legitimate concern parents raise; but it is not easy to answer. Signs of bullying will vary depending on the type of bullying and the age of the child. Therefore, physical bullying may be the easiest out of all the types in identify. It may present as bruises, ripped clothing or broken belongings. Where as verbal, social and cyber bullying are more elusive to identify and could present as signs of withdrawal, changes to behavior or sleep, and eating habits. Symptoms of withdrawal present differently in a grade school aged child who may report stomach aches or headaches, than a high school aged child who may refuse to go to school or become truant, or isolate themselves from peers. While bullying rarely becomes extreme; it has the power to lead to other problems such as: poor grades or avoidance behaviors at home and at school. Yet, It should be noted that the above signs can be attributed to many childhood challenges, and caution should be used to uncover the root cause. Seek help if you are noticing that your child is "stuck." Stuck may mean they are stuck in behaviors, emotions, or patterns of thinking listed above; and with time and help from you or school personnel, they cannot seem to get 'unstuck.'
Why is bullying such an important issue for children?
Bullying holds such power at childhood because our basic human needs to A) be loved and B) be accepted or belong are at stake. Especially during middle school and high school, the well known developmental researcher Erik Erikson identified that the most important developmental task of the middle school and high school years is: figuring out who I am, or find my identity. Finding our identity is often discovered through our interactions with and fitting in with our peers (and groups of kids are labeled: drama kid, jock, nerd). If a bully's attempt to gain more power takes hold, first a child may feel unaccepted and then unloved by others; and then over time the child may learn to no longer love or accept themselves; overall leading to a true identity crisis. In extreme cases bullying can end lives, and therefore must be taken seriously.
What can parents do about bullying?
Childhood and adolescence are possibly the most vulnerable time of our lives. This topic is so vital to parents because we know our children and teenagers are still forming and growing as individuals, and the scars of bullying can affect a person for a lifetime. Intense fear can creep in for parents when thinking about bullying. I want to remind you, though, that you can do so many things to help your child and you probably are doing many of them already.
- Talk to your children about bullying from a young age and encourage them to advocate for themselves. Dove's Self Esteem Project has an anti-bullying campaign that recommends opening the dialogue up about bullying while watching TV or Movies together that highlight bullying. The recommendation they give for grade school children is the movie Cinderella. Dove encourages parents to ask questions like: why are the stepsisters doing this and what can Cinderella do about it, who could she talk to? Younger children are more likely to go to their parents and teachers for help with bullying, give them the permission to advocate for themselves when they feel bullied.
During the middle school and high school years adolescents are practicing becoming adults trying to handle challenges on their own with often times little to no rush to involve their parents. Even the most trusting of child and parent relationships may not lend itself to an adolescent seeking out help from their parent. So what do we do then?
- Put into place strong Protective Factors for your family. You can start this at any time and they are truly a proactive approach to build a strong family that can adapt to stress.
What is a Protective Factor? I became aware of the term when studying the Strengthening Families approach as a way to help families and children have better outcomes in times of stress. One definition from Childwelfare.gov is: "Protective factors are conditions or attributes (skills, strengths, resources, supports or coping strategies) in individuals, families, communities or the larger society that help people deal more effectively with stressful events and mitigate or eliminate risk in families and communities." To help our children with bullying there are so many protective factors families can put into place.
*A word about modeling: To model is to imitate for your child the skills you hope they will acquire (they will be what they see, right?). Ideally, this means to find teachable moments in the everyday.
- Model (out loud) your own internal problem-solving dialogue.
- Model conflict resolution by telling your kids how you handle difficult people.
- Model how to seek help by letting them see you seek help when needed.
- Model social emotional competence by using "I statements" and feeling words in everyday interactions.
- Increase your knowledge of child development, so you'll better understand when changes with your child are out of what is typically expected.
- Model boundaries for your child. Seeing you graciously set and enforce boundaries will help them to do so in their own lives.
- Create connections with your child's friends, parents, coaches, teachers, youth group leaders, etc.. These people can also keep you apprised of whats going on socially with your child.
- Have a plan in place, who do you talk to in times of stress maybe its not the parents… maybe its an aunt, uncle, cousin, grand parent to realize the child needs help.
- Bullying potentially causes isolation, support more connections in your child's life, so that isolation isn't as impactful.
The list for protective factors could go on and on. There are many that we often already do unintentionally. A primer for creating family rituals that can become Protective Factors is the book by Doherty (1997): The Intentional Family. These positive family rituals and attributes will give buoyancy to a child who is being bullied.
Cyber bullying can be especially frightening for parents because it is a whole new world. Technology has completely changed communication from when I was in middle school or high school. As a social worker, in the school setting and private practice, I continue to hear story after story about cyber bullying from youth. This type of bullying seems to be increasingly common and quite possibly the most hurtful. Social media and group chats can change a person's reputation in a matter of minutes.
It is with this knowledge that sometimes parents will say: "I am taking away their phone, or I am taking away their apps." Every family will have its own rules about technology and when to allow kids to participate in social media. Yet, I caution parents to not let fears of cyber bullying take away the opportunity for kids to connect with their peers. Social media and group chats are not going anywhere. This is the most common way kids communicate with each other outside of school. Social media and group chats are a way to connect. Listed below are Cyber Bullying Protective Factors.
Cyber Bullying Protective Factors
- Model (out loud) your own privacy and content skills for your social media.
- Know the apps your child uses, and use them yourself. You'll better understand how and what they encounter while online.
- Talk about sexually explicit pictures with tweens and teens. What they are, the repercussions of sharing, how to reduce risks if you do share something, etc…
- Try to talk about social media without judgement, this proactive approach will increase the likelihood of kids seeking help later if your approach includes understanding
- Shared family passwords for Middle Schoolers or insisting on 'following' your child's account
So..What's Love Got To Do With Bullying?
At the beginning of this post I wrote about how it would look to love a bully. Here is what I think that looks like: it looks like EMPATHY. Talking with your child about who bullies and why may give insight that "hurt people hurt people." The bully is ultimately the one displaying their insecurity and hurt and needs intervention the most. This understanding may lead to empathy from you and your child.
Empathy does not look like the child that is being bullied trying to intervene or 'help' the bully. Empathy does not look like excusing or ignoring hurtful behavior. Empathy is the realization that mean and cruel behavior from others is not about me one bit, it is all about the bully. Empathy has the power to take away the personal nature of an attack and open our minds to the fear and insecurity that is on display. Empathy has the power to remind me, once again, that "I am enough, just the way I am."
Where does my worth come from?
As adults we often attribute our worth to: my work, my activities, the groups I am involved with, my social calendar. For children worthiness often, and developmentally appropriately, comes from what my peers think of me. Social media has magnified what a peer's perceptions of me are; the number of likes for my story or picture, shares, number of chats I am a part of, how many followers I have; and the spiral of worthiness goes on.
As Christians, we know our worthiness is not determined by these transactional things (work, friends, social media). We know that our worth is because God loved us first, lovable or not, She just loves us all. And modeling this for our children, speaking this purpose into their lives, I believe this to be the biggest Protective Factor of all.
One way to enact this idea into our lives is with a Loving Kindness Meditation practice. First, I mediate on spoken words of love and kindness towards myself. Then, I can open my meditation to offer love and kindness towards others, even the hard to love, even bullies. This intentional ritual gives us the capacity to carry out our purpose: to mirror God's love. One example of a loving kindness meditation that you can modify is in the Resource section of this post.
Bullying is a threat to many children. Bullying has emotional and academic consequences. There are Protective Factors that families can proactively put into place to lessen the affects of bullying.
Fear and love are two sides of the same coin. I can choose to put my energy into fear: fearing pain and 'what ifs' for my child. Or, I can choose to put my energy into love: loving all the ways I get to impact my child and their understanding, loving that children learn through social interaction, loving how my child will become connected to their community, loving every opportunity for growth for my child, finding gratitude in transformation. When I love myself I can extend that love to others. When I love myself, as God loves me, the worthiness placed on other’s acceptance of me diminishes. Love can be risky and is not easy. Yet, love in the way of the Greatest Commandment is totally worth all the risks.
I have faith that the hardship and pain that is caused by bullying will not be wasted. From my own experiences I have seen that, if we can allow it, with pain comes the gift of transformation.
- Montreat Youth Conferences: https://montreat.org/events/myc
- PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center: https://www.pacer.org/bullying/
- Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Developmental Theory
- Dove's Self Esteem Project
- Protective Factors: https://www.childwelfare.gov/
- The Intentional Family, William Doherty, 1997
- Loving Kindness Meditation by John Lee
-"In this body no fear -In this body safety -In this body greatest happiness -In this body deep peace"
- "In my school no fear - In my school safety - In my school greatest happiness -In my school deep peace"
- Advocate for social emotional programs in schools to educate youth about appropriate conflict resolution and emotion regulation and management.
- Advocate for bystander programs in schools to empower all students to stand up for others