Q: [All Ages] My son is entering high school and I’m worried about bullying. How can I prevent it?
A: We think of bullies as tough kids who are all fists and no heart. But the truth is trickier. Research from around the world repeatedly shows that bullies are a product of their environment. Children and teens who are harassed at home often become bullies at school.
Bullies have higher rates of depression, anxiety, anger and low self-esteem than their counterparts. And while they are no doubt perpetrators of violence, most are typically victims as well.
The origins of bullying should not take anyone by surprise. If you’re comfortable in your own skin and content with your life, there is little reason to tear down someone else. When one child repeatedly and viciously harasses another, it’s important to find out why. Not just for the sake of the victim or the bully, but for all the people who could be affected by the potential cycle of violence down the line. Without proper treatment, bullies tend to grow up to be domestic abusers, continuing a cycle of behavior that can extend generations.
One of the biggest myths about bullying prevention is that the work of addressing bullies is “someone else’s problem.” Some push the responsibilities on the school, teachers or parents involved. Some even put the onus on the victim to be more assertive, create alliances and defend themselves better against attacks.
The truth is, we all play a role in recognizing and preventing bullying and school violence. By questioning what has motivated the bully, the community can work together to determine appropriate and effective interventions. From therapy to parenting classes to additional educational resources, there are many steps a community can make to stop bullying.
I do have one caveat to this “it takes a village” approach; it tends to break down online. Cyberbullying is an insidious form of harassment that is generally hidden from adult view. Unlike a punch in the hallway or taunts that can be overheard in the cafeteria, cyberbullying is occurring on social media platforms to which parents and teachers often have no access.
The motivations of cyberbullying might be similar to that of the in-person variety, but the effect can be more far-reaching. A recent survey study of 10,000 teens in the UK found that one in three live in fear of cyberbullying, with 17 percent saying they have been victimized online.
There are many effective prevention programs for cyberbullying, and the Cyberbullying Research Center can be a helpful resource. But adults need to know that cyberbullying is occurring in order to help stop it.
The best way to do this is for parents to create an open and judgment-free line of communication with their children. Kids need to know that they can come to you for help without reprimand. That they can trust you to listen, not lecture and punish.
If there are threats of violence or evidence of child pornography, turn to the police. If your child is the one doing the bullying, take action. Talk to your child about empathy and responsibility. Set up parental monitors on their devices and get to the heart of what has motivated their behavior. Otherwise, work with the school, consider therapy or a psychiatric evaluation for your child if needed and set up privacy controls within each of your kid’s social platforms to block the bully from making contact.
Bullies are typically raised, not born. Working together and understanding the complex nature of bullying is an important step to ending this vicious cycle.
Sina Safahieh, M.D., is the medical director of the ASPIRE program (After-School Program Interventions and Resiliency Education). Hoag’s Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute is offering the acclaimed program as an evidence-based outpatient program to treat teen mental health conditions.