Dr. Wes: In the past few years, the problem of bullying has been getting greater attention in the media. This seems to have grown out of the school shooting incidents that became all too familiar in the mid- to late-'90s. Most accounts from the Columbine shooting include some reference to cliques and bullying as a contributing factor. However, those connections are tough to prove as actual causes of such violence. Many kids are bullied; few shoot their classmates.
What is not difficult to prove is the fact that bullying continues to be a problem in our schools. Numerous Web sites decry bullies. Even the federal government has one asking kids to "Stop Bullying Now" (www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov). The site claims that 15 percent to 25 percent of U.S. students are bullied with some frequency, while 15 percent to 20 percent report they bully others with some frequency. The site also claims that bullies are more likely to skip school and drop out, and their victims are more likely to skip school themselves. In fact, the site claims that "as many as 160,000 students may stay home on any given day because they're afraid of being bullied."
Pretty shocking stuff, and there are a lot more dire stats like this all over the Web - all predicting terrible things not only for the victims of bullying, but for the bullies themselves. In grade school, children in this district are taught about bullying and how to avoid and prevent it. It's easy to wonder whether this worry hasn't become a bit of a media fad. However, if you've ever sat across from a kid who's been bullied and heard the effect it has on his life, you quickly start to buy in. For many kids, bullying is pretty much teen terrorism. There are no car bombs or planes flying into buildings, but if you really understand terrorism - a campaign of fear designed to keep people constantly anxious and off kilter - you can understand my analogy.
Also like terrorism, bullying has now gone high-tech. It's grown from the old standard of schoolyard extortion for lunch money or taunting and fights to include the use of cell phones, instant messenger and online diaries like Xanga and MySpace. And, if it ever was, bullying is no longer only in the purview of boys. Movies and books such as "Odd Girl Out" and "Mean Girls" describe both humorously and tragically how vicious girls can be to one another in junior high and high school.
So what can we do about this? As always, know your kids and have a good relationship with them. If they are under attack from a bully, they need to be able to tell you about it. This is especially problematic when some form of extortion is involved. One of the new "fun" things to do is to use all the wonderful recording tools (e-mail, IM, digital cameras, phones, video tape) to secretly record compromising photos or conversations and then use them in an unkind way. As with any extortion plot, this makes it hard for the victim to get help because the point is to keep things covered. Parents need to discuss these kinds of things with their kids and be ready to deal with the bullies rather than condemn the victims. Kids always have done dumb things. Now they are increasingly getting caught doing them on tape.
The second thing parents can do is expect security from schools. I will point no specific fingers, but instead suggest something that every district in the region would endorse: Schools are supposed to be safe, secure and drug-free environments where kids can focus on learning. I suggest that you sit down tonight with your teenager, make a confidentiality agreement stating that you will not repeat what they tell you and that they need not offer any names, and ask them if they feel that they are in this kind of school environment. If they feel safe, have a party. If not, you might want to investigate further.
Kids have an anxious enough time these days; the last thing they need is someone executing a guerrilla movement against them everyday at lunch or on the Internet. Keep an eye on bullies in school, at home and in the community.
Marissa: Bullying can take on many different forms and is sometimes not even perceived as bullying by the person at whom it is targeted. In high school, most bullying consists of snide comments disguised as jokes, but meant seriously - offhand remarks about one's clothing or interests. These kinds of comments might not be perceived as actual bullying, but through the power of peer pressure they can do just as much damage.
The intense type of bullying seen in movies and on TV does occur, but only to a few. Mostly the kids who don't have a lot of friends for one reason or another are the ones who are singled out for true bullying - those who wear the wrong pants or are a little too into computer games.
From my experience, bullying hits its peak in junior high and finally starts to taper off around sophomore or junior year. In junior high, rumors seem to dominate conversation and escalate drama. Cliques turn against cliques, and the war of the words begins. Physical bullying was never very common from my experience, though it occasionally happened between the students who were generally more aggressive than others.
Stopping bullying takes a lot of strength, courage and self-respect. It also takes a great amount of maturity to do it effectively. The best way to offset bullying is by responding to an offensive statement positively. An example of this: A person walks up and says sarcastically, "Hah, nice shoes." Answer with a cheery smile, "Thanks, I like them, too."
While it may not seem as satisfying a comeback as, say, a kick in the stomach, the reaction is unrewarding to the bully. Eventually, if her remarks are always answered with an unfazed response, she won't bother. Even more admirable is when someone stands up for another student being bullied. Though it is intimidating and much easier to walk away, the choice to stand up for someone else is much more rewarding than ignoring the situation.
Bullying is something that children must face from elementary through high school. By refusing to participate in the intimidating behavior, you can distinguish yourself as more mature and help to stop the bullying.
Next week: Just in time for post-Christmas shopping, a parent asks why our kids have become so materialistic.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Marissa Ballard is a Lawrence High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.