Child Development & Parenting: Middle (8-11)
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Bullying and Peer Abuse

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Bullying or Peer Abuse occurs when children are singled out for ridicule and torment by peers who are relatively more powerful than they are. The children who do the tormenting (e.g., the bullies) are typically older, physically larger, more aggressive or more socially powerful than their victims. The bullies' goal is to experience themselves as powerful and dominant. Their acts of bullying are designed to induce in their victims a sense of powerlessness, helplessness and humiliation, the appearance of which is proof of their dominance. Their ability to force victims to experience painful states they cannot avoid or ignore is proof of bullies' potency and effectiveness.

bullyingBullying behaviors vary, and may include verbal taunting (e.g., name calling), physical aggression and even organized defamatory marketing campaigns carried out in a sophisticated manner through the use of text messages, web pages and social networks. Physical bullying may include hitting, tripping, or stealing from other children. Verbal bullying can involve yelling, name calling and other sorts of verbal harassment. Emotional bullying involves telling secrets about other peers without their knowledge, starting hurtful rumors, or purposefully excluding children from games or activities. All types of bullying (these and any others we have not mentioned) are hurtful and unacceptable forms of peer abuse.

Parents should not tolerate bullying behavior. Bullying is bad for childrens (and adults) short and long term emotional and mental health as well as educational, occupational and social functioning. Parents who become aware that their children are being bullied, or that their children are bullying other children should take immediate action to shut the bullying process down. There are several strategies which can be brought to bear to accomplish this goal.

Many parents have probably heard the old conventional wisdom advice to the effect that the best way to handle a bully is to ignore him (or her). This strategy points in the right direction in that it encourages victims to not react, but it fails miserably in many cases because bullies are able to counter it by escalating the intensity of their violence until the victim cannot ignore it and must react.

Because ignoring bullies can be impractical, victimized children are better served by practicing responding to them in ways that do not convey a sense of fear, either verbally or non-verbally (e.g., through body language). Children need to practice avoiding arguing with bullies, giving them things, or responding to them in any way (even in a humorous manner). They need to practice doing this in a manner that does not communicate fear. In order to do this, children need to be taught about body language and what fearful people look like in terms of eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, and hand positions. Parents can help children to become more aware of their body language through the use of role play and the process of videotaping children when they are feeling afraid and showing them what they do behaviorally that communicates this fear.

To avoid communicating fear to bullies, children can practice keeping a relaxed, calm facial expression rather than scowling, looking tearful, or quivering. They can also learn to stand or sit "tall" (but still relaxed) while holding their arms and hands naturally to their sides (rather than hunching over and crossing their arms or clenching their fists, which suggests anger or fear).

A vehicle many parents and children may explore for increasing children's confidence and reduce their fear is to enroll them in a class that promises to teach them self-defense or martial arts skills. Signing up for such classes is a mixed bag which may benefit some children but not others. Particularly with regard to girls, bullying may not occur in a physical form and thus there is nothing to defend against physically. As well, children singled out for physical bullying are often not born fighters or even terribly interested in self-defense except inasmuch as they are forced to learn it. They may not have the drive to learn the necessary skills they would need to fight back effectively. Even if they are able to learn relevant defense skills, the sheer number of bullies who taunt them may make physical resistance futile. It's nice to offer victimized children this option if they desire it, but no child should be forced into such a class against their will.

Though children will almost certainly want to handle bullying situations on their own (as any socially visible instance of their parents taking action may embarrass them or become further fodder for their being teased), parents may need to intervene (in a non-vigilante manner!) in order to protect their children's safety or keep the situation from worsening.

Contact Information

Sarah Dinklage, LICSW
Executive Director

Charles Cudworth, MA
Director, Clinical Services

Leigh Reposa, MSW, LICSW
Manager, Youth Suicide Prevention Program

Colleen Judge, LMHC                  Director, School-Based Services 

Kathleen Sullivan
Director, Community Prevention/ Kent County Regional Prevention Coalition 

Heidi Driscoll                      Director, South County Regional Prevention Coalition 

Sue Davis, LICSW           Manager, Student Assistance Services     

300 Centerville Rd.
Suite 301 South 
Warwick, RI 02886


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