Talking to your kids about important issues can be tricky. ‘Parents and Teens’ is an ongoing series exploring topics that impact the lives of modern adolescents, including everything from stress and bullying to depression and substance abuse. This week’s focus is bullying, how it impacts teens and what can be done to address it.
The world of the modern teen is quite different from the one their parents grew up in. Advances in technology have changed many aspects of their lives, including the ways they interact with each other.
A lot of positives can be attributed to this “always connected” lifestyle where teens can easily catch up with friends, research a topic for a class project, look up the answer to a question or simply manage their time with calendars, alarms, reminders and the like.
Unfortunately, some negative aspects of the teen lifestyle have also evolved alongside technology, including bullying.
Brad Snyder, author and president of New Amsterdam Consulting, Inc., explained that before cyberbullying, victims were able to escape their bullies simply by leaving school. Nowadays, thanks to everything from social media to instant messaging, the torment can follow a victim wherever they go.
Luckily, Snyder said the solution is human, not digital.
“It is important to note that research has shown that all bullying is still school-based,” he said. “In other words, virtually every incident of cyberbullying has its roots in something that happened in-person and at the school. This is good news because we do not have to become technological wizards to stop cyberbullying; we simply have to get students to treat each other better at school.”
To better understand how to address bullying (in person or online), it’s probably a good idea to understand what, exactly, bullying is.
According to Snyder, three characteristics traditionally separate bullying from other forms of conflict. For starters, there is an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim.
“Most often, the bully is physically larger and more powerful,” Snyder said. “However, bullies also can use social position to create an imbalance of power by manipulating a group of individuals against a victim.”
In other words, bullying isn’t just an issue of “big mistreats small.” Whether it’s saddling a peer with a cruel nickname or encouraging others to add negative comments to a classmate’s Instagram posts, non-physical forms of bullying bruise victims in their own way.
“The second characteristic is that bullying is repeated,” Snyder continued. “It is never a single act.
“The third characteristic is that the damage the bullying causes is intentional. Cyberbullying changed this definition. Now bullying can use technological prowess to create an imbalance of power. Also, a single act can be repeated, intentionally or otherwise, by the digital network.”
While no parent wants to find out their kid is the one doing the bullying, it’s an unfortunate truth some will have to face.
Snyder said that it is important to understand that, like everyone else, bullies want relationships. However, forming healthy relationships is not an innate ability, but rather something that has to be learned.
“Often bullies believe that the best way for them to gain esteem in the eyes of their peers is to control, manipulate or degrade others,” Snyder explained. “…This does not work in the long-term.”
If a parent believes their child is a bully, Snyder said the first step should be to help them develop empathy, self-regulation and other positive relationship skills.
“This is best accomplished by modeling the behaviors one wants a child to have,” Snyder said. “The parent can also help the child find other opportunities to demonstrate their value to peers. Bullies often are more comfortable expressing themselves through art or being athletic than they are in a traditional classroom setting, which means that, in today’s standardized-test-obsessed schools, there are few opportunities for these students to be comfortable and show their classmates that they are good at things.”
Signs and impact
It’s important to identify and confront bullying because of the lasting impact these types of negative relationships can have on all parties involved.
Snyder notes that victims of bullying do worse academically, and then there are the mental and emotional costs to consider.
“Being bullied can be traumatic and create social and emotional problems that continue throughout adulthood,” Snyder said. “Students who exhibit suicidal behaviors have typically experienced higher levels of bullying.”
As noted above, Snyder reiterated that bullying impacts the perpetrators, too.
“Bullies are more likely than others to fail academically, abuse substances and have failed relationships over the course of their lifetimes,” he said. “Finally, both male victims and male perpetrators of bullying are more likely to commit sexual violence.”
For parents who think their child might be the victim of bullying, Snyder highlighted several signs to be on the lookout for, including a dramatic change in attitude toward school.
“This typically is accompanied by a sharp decrease in academic performance,” Snyder said. “Victims of bullying may also have unexplained bruises, torn clothes and lost or broken property.
“Victims of bullying may also complain of somatic illnesses, such as headaches and stomach aches, that coincide with the beginning of a school week or school day. It is important that parents are present in the lives of their children so that they can recognize these changes.”
When attempting to get children to open up about bullying, Snyder said it is important to refrain from asking them what the bully said or did, or why.
“Victims know the reasons the bullies gave because bullies work hard to make the victims believe that they deserve the treatment,” Snyder explained. “That is the last thing that victims want, is for caring adults to see them as the bullies do.
“The details of the bullying can be discussed later, after the victims are assured that they did nothing to deserve the bullying, that it is not about them but about something that is happening within the bullies, and that the bullying is going to stop.”
Due to the fact that the majority of bullying is school-based, Snyder said parents need to reach out to their kids’ schools if bullying is occurring.
“By law, all public schools in Arizona have bullying response policies,” Snyder said. “Ideally, the schools also will have implemented evidence-based bullying prevention programs.”
Snyder pointed to the Arizona Department of Health Services’ website at muststopbullying.org as a valuable source of resources and information.
As for those who think that a little bullying will help “toughen” a kid, Snyder said that kind of antiquated thinking needs to be altered.
“Being bullied does not help students become more resilient,” Snyder said. “Quite the opposite. Research has not identified a single benefit of being bullied and the consequences of bullying over the course of a lifetime are quite detrimental to bullies, victims and others around them.”
Next week: Depression and its impact on teens.