(Reprinted from the November 1992 Reader's Digest, pgs. 199-204)
When Owen, a Connecticut first-grader, stepped off the school bus one fall day, blood was trickling from the corner of his puffy-lipped mouth, and streaks of dirt and tears stained his small face.
A "mean kid" had bashed him on the bus, Owen told his father. On the school playground, the same boy tripped him and punched him in the nose. Their teachers hadn't noticed.
In Seattle, a social-service professional asked her 13-year-old daughter, a good-looking star soccer player, why she seemed so unhappy. The girl started sobbing, then admitted that for the past six months whenever one boy saw her in the hall, he would lean toward her and say things like, "You big fat whale, you zit-faced slug, you ugly witch." He did this up to ten times a day and used a lot of four-letter words.
Many parents hear similar stories from their children. Dan Olweus, a psychologist who has studied bullying for over 20 years, estimates that about three million elementary and junior-high kids endure either physical abuse or verbal harassment every year. "Bullying," says Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in California, "is one of the most enduring and underrated problems in our schools today." Typically, children don't report bullying - even when they're desperate. A South Carolina man realized something was wrong only when his daughter claimed she had a stomachache every morning, so she could stay home. Other telltale signs of a child's being victimized include excessively dirty clothing, unexplained bruises, missing possessions, or a need for extra school supplies or lunch money, items frequently extorted by bullies.
The psychological consequences of bullying can be serious. Children who are bullied often become depressed, and sometimes even convinced they are worthless. The mother of one ten-year-old boy in New York City brushed aside her son's complaints about boys picking on him - until his grades went down and he began overeating to compensate for his frustration. Children who witness a schoolmate being bullied and see nothing done about it grow fearful too: they think That could happen to me. "Unless parents, teachers and school administrators get involved, chances are the bullying will continue," Stephens warns.
What can children - and their parents - do? Here are five of the best strategies.
Don't give the bully an emotional payoff. When some older boys kept surrounding Michael, a New York City sixth-grader, in the school hall and taunting him about his weight, "he came home terribly upset," says his mother. "I told him this was just what the bullies wanted." She is right.
"Many kids who are picked on reward the bully by reacting with tears," says David G. Perry, a psychologist at Florida Atlantic University at Boca Raton. Indeed, children who cry when bullying starts may soon find themselves attacked in a more serious way. With a little help from his mother and the head of the school, Michael was able to stay calm and walk past the bullies without reacting. The taunts soon stopped. "Knowing that we were behind him made all the difference," says his mother.
Be assertive. Ignoring bullies is often not enough; they just keep at it. But many kids don't know how to stand up for themselves without fighting back. When a group of three second-graders in a South Carolina public school kept ganging up on a shy first-grader, guidance counselor Tip Frank trained the child to be more assertive. "We worked on standing up straight, looking the bullies in the eye and telling them in a firm voice to stop," Frank explains.
He also had the boy memorize three short statements - "Don't do that. I don't like it. I'll report it if you keep on doing it" - and then walk away. "He was surprised that it worked," Frank says. "It's important to confront the bully with the fact that you don't like what he's doing and how it makes you feel," says Richard Mills, a consulting school psychologist in Los Angeles. It is easier to reason with a bully if you catch him alone, advises Don McConkey, a principal in Washington State. "Bullies gain strength from a group, and that eggs them on."
Do something unexpected. For Eric, a seventh- grader in a Chicago suburb, gym class was an ordeal. One boy was continually throwing Eric's clothes on the floor, pulling his underwear until it ripped and scratching him - once so hard it left gouges in his arm. "Finally we came up with a solution," Eric's mother says. The next time the boy came near, Eric said, "Get your filthy hands off me" in a loud, indignant voice. The bully was taken by surprise, because everyone turned to look at him. Eric had to do this only twice before the bullying stopped.
Rehearsing such assertive behavior is important to give kids the confidence to stand up for themselves, says Nathaniel Floyd, a psychologist with New York's Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Suppose an obnoxious classmate keeps bullying your sixth-grade son to give up his place in the lunch line. Floyd counsels writing down things your son could say to make a bully think twice, such as, "I'm not moving no matter what you say. Now cut it out!" Then take turns pretending to be the bully and the victim. Let your child play the bully first. This gives you a chance to show how to say the lines in a convincing way without mumbling or looking down, and how to end an encounter by breaking off eye contact with the bully.
Strengthen your child's friendships. The father of one North Carolina third-grader advised him to "stick with your buddies when the bully is around." His son went further, recruiting five friends to help him confront the boy on the playground. "This is our friend," they told him. "It isn't right for you to pick on him or anybody else." The bully backed off. "Even one child on the side of a victim can be a powerful deterrent to a bully," says Ronald Slaby, a psychologist at Harvard University and the Education Development Center.
Robert Cairns, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, recommends that parents of shy or socially awkward youngsters help them make friends by inviting their classmates over after school. Older children, he says, can be encouraged to "develop skills in sports, music or some other activity where they can, find friends."
Get help from school authorities. When Grace, a New York first-grader, got glasses, one fifth-grade boy began calling her "four eyes." She tried all the recommended tactics. First she ignored him. Then she tried calmly saying, "You're counting wrong. I only have two," in a strong voice. Nothing worked.
Finally, after a week, she told the lunchroom teacher, who sent the boy to the principal. Grace is glad she did. The boy had to apologize to her, and the harassment stopped. "I'd advise kids to tell sooner," Grace says, "so they don't have to hurt so much." Most kids don't want to be caught "ratting" on their peers, though, and many parents worry they are being interfering or overprotective by reporting bullying. Not so. Parents have the right to expect schools to take a strong stand against bullies.
Don't call the bully's parents or talk to the bully yourself. It usually doesn't work. Let the school do it. Because teachers and staff can observe both children interacting, it's harder for the bully's parents to deny there's anything going on.
Sensitive teachers can often devise simple but effective solutions. Connecticut teacher Gail Fisher put a bully and his victim, a star math student, in the same group for cooperative math projects. The victim's skills made him essential to the team's success, and he became the leader.
Often it's better to go directly to the guidance counselor or principal. When Marjorie Castro, principal of Dobbs Ferry Middle School in Westchester County, New York, hears of a bullying incident she alerts teachers to watch unobtrusively, or checks the story herself. Castro confronts the bully with what she has seen (thus absolving the victim of the accusation of tattling) and warns him of the consequences if it continues - detentions, parental consultation, even suspension. Recently when two boys who'd been taunting another boy began throwing rocks at him, she brought in the youth officer from the local police force. He visited the bullies at their homes and required them to stop by the youth center once a week. The bullying quickly ended.
However the principal and staff of your child's school proceed, they should be committed to fostering an atmosphere that actively discourages bullying through explicit school rules and adequate supervision. Some schools run regular seminars to alert teachers to the problem and help them combat it.
Most children are picked on at one time or another; a few become chronic victims. The best protection parents can offer is to foster their child's confidence and independence - and be willing to take quick action when it's needed. That way, you can make your youngster bully-proof.