As a parent, I have been on both sides of this issue. When my middle daughter was three, she was a biter. It does not seem like a big deal now, but at the time, I was embarrassed that my child was hurting other kids. Additionally, I was defensive and didn’t want my sweet little girl labeled as mean or aggressive. Fast forward 10 years and the same daughter was starting high school. She had a group of friends who sometimes excluded her from their activities. A few girls, in particular, seemed to be purposely leaving her out. This time, I was angry and hurt. I wanted to label those other girls as mean and aggressive. I wanted to protect my child from that pain. I don’t know a parent that has not had some similar experiences. Kids can be aggressors at one time in their lives and targets at another. They are all children and in reality, there are no sides.
So what can a parent do? What should a parent do? Let’s start with language, specifically the word “bully”, which you may have noticed I have avoided in describing my daughter’s experience. On March 10th, the New Milford Youth Agency had a parent workshop on the topic of bullying. Our speaker was Jo Ann Freiberg, Ph.D, a consultant for the CT State Department of Education in the areas of school climate, bullying, and character education. She’s an expert with vast experience in this topic who regularly speaks to school staff and parents about mean behavior between kids. With all of her expertise, Jo Ann is not a fan of the word bully. “If everything is bullying, nothing is bullying,” explains Jo Ann, “Bullying becomes a proxy for any mean behavior.” Even the definition of bullying is a tricky thing. There is no federal definition, so each state has its own (49 States have anti-bullying legislation). For specifics about Connecticut’s definition, you can look at the CT State Department of Education website or New Milford School District’s website, or email me. The CT definition includes words like physical and emotional harm, fear of harm, hostile environment, and more. A simpler definition is offered by the Swedish Psychologist Dan Olweus, the first professional to use the word bullying in its current form: bullying is verbal or physical harassment, occurring repeatedly over time, and involving an imbalance of power.
On Tuesday night, Jo Ann asked the audience if anyone was there because their child was the “bully”. Not surprisingly, no one raised their hand. According to Jo Ann, “Bullying is a negative toxic term, no one wants a part of it; no one looks at the bullying issue and says, yes, that is me, or yes that is my child.” My three year old daughter may have been seen as a “bully” by the parent(s) of the bitten, and the girls who excluded my daughter may have seemed like bullies to me. But I agree with Jo Ann that the label is often not helpful and often does not accurately reflect what is happening. Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones (Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy), puts it this way, “The old problem was that adults were too prone to look the other way when powerful kids turned on weaker ones; this of course, still happens. But we have a new trap to watch out for; being too quick to slap the label bully onto some kids and the label of victim onto others. It’s a kind of crying wolf, and it does damage. For one thing, calling every mean comment or hallway clash bullying breeds cynicism and sucks precious resources from the kids who need our help. For another, it turns a manageable problem into an overwhelming one.”
Here is something that I found on a school counselor blog (thank you to Mrs. Sepp’s Counseling Corner for her generous sharing of materials). This is not about legal definitions, but I think it is helpful in sorting out the behaviors between kids and how to “tease” out what is happening.
Is it Bullying? What is it?
• Everyone is having fun
• No one is getting hurt
• Everyone is participating equally
• No one is having fun
• There is a possible solution to the disagreement
• Equal balance of power
• Someone is being hurt on purpose
• Reaction to a strong feeling or emotion
• An isolated event (does not happen regularly)
• Attacked physically, socially, and/or emotionally
• Unequal balance of power
• Happens more than once over a period of time
• Someone is being hurt intentionally
As a social worker here at the Youth Agency, I often hear from parents with concerns about their child being bullied. I ask parents to tell me specifically what is happening. What is the child saying? What is the parent seeing? I want to know what bullying means to them. At the bullying presentation, Jo Ann advised parents, “Don’t insist that it is bullying.” Yes, mean behaviors may be happening, and they may even fall under the school’s definition of bullying. But starting out by labeling the problem bullying is not specific, and is often not the best way to get to a solution. She suggests that parents talk to the school about specific behaviors. “My child is being excluded.” “My child is being called names on the bus.” “My child said ___.” This is information the school needs, and this way it is not your interpretation of behaviors, it is what you hear and see and know. If the problem is affecting the child’s feeling of security and safety at school, then a parent can specifically say, “My child does not feel safe on the bus” or even “My child is not safe in school.” Jo Ann recommends communication with the teacher, counselor, or administrator “early and often”; not attacking, but informing. “I want to make you aware that ________.” The more the school knows, the more helpful they can be in ensuring that your child is safe and supported at school.
As Jo Ann Freiberg summed it up, the primary issue is safety. Children need to feel physically and emotionally safe in schools and at home. Kids who feel connected at school and at home do better emotionally, physically, and academically. To schools, she recommends character education rather than anti-bullying programs. “Anti-bullying assemblies sometimes have the opposite effect.” To parents and educators her message is that children are watching you, show them the behaviors you want them to model. In the Positive Discipline Parenting classes that I teach, we have a similar message- it is more powerful and effective to tell (and show) children what TO DO rather than what NOT TO DO. The newer anti bullying statutes reflect this, with a shifting of the focus from simply implementing consequences for mean behavior to proactively building a positive school climate. A final quote from Jo Ann Freiberg, “Young people who hurt others turn into adults who hurt others, unless we give them a different model.”
There is more to talk about, so I’ll continue this topic in the next post. I’ll offer suggestions for how to respond to your child when they come home upset by another child’s mean behavior, what to do when you believe your child is being seriously bullied, and the role of teaching assertiveness and coping skills to kids. If you want to talk about any of this in relation to your child, you can contact me here at the New Milford Youth Agency. If you would like more information about our speaker, Jo Ann Freiberg, find it here.