Breaking Down Bullying, Part l: Overview and Prevention

Steven Kairys, M.D., MPH Chairman of Pediatrics Jersey Shore University Medical Center K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital

In the first of a special three-part series for Meridian Momtourage, Steven Kairys, M.D., MPH, Chairman of Pediatrics, Jersey Shore University Medical Center, K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital, gives an overview of bullying and discusses prevention tips for teachers and parents.

Overview & Prevention

Bullying has three features: aggressive verbal or physical behavior that is intentional; there is an imbalance of power in the relationship so the victims have problems defending themselves; and the behavior is repeated and/or severe causing great distress to the victim.

Cyberbullying is a unique form of bullying, and we will describe this more fully in another article.

There are three components to bullying.
  • There is the victim.
  • There is the person who bullies.
  • There are the children who witness the bullying and are themselves affected by the actions of the bully.

Bullying can occur at almost any age. The start of bullying occurs based on the specific relationships that form over time in a group of children.

Children who are bullied are often passive and shy and less socially experienced. Bullying, again, is about control and power.

Bullying is common, and some studies show that one-in-three school aged children state that they were victims of bullying during their school years. Effects on the victim can be immense. Some signs of being bullied include damaged or missing clothing, somatic complaints like headache or stomach pain, sleep problems, loss of interest in friends, unexplained fears, and mood changes. Low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, school avoidance, and lower grades are all part of the morbidity of bullying.

Schools, adults and parents can play a big role in preventing bullying and in earlier detection. Bullying is not a rite of passage; it is not the victim’s fault. This is not about kids being kids. It is not about letting the victim deal with it alone. It is very important that school personnel and parents understand the dynamics of bullying and the short and long term damage caused by bullying. Schools need clear and well-advertised rules and school protocols about bullying. There is a clear difference between conflict and fighting at school and bullying. Many schools increase adult supervision in places where bullying is likely to occur.

Points to Remember
  • Never blame the victim or get the involved students to talk it out.
  • Make the issue of bullying transparent and frequently discussed in the school setting.
  • Support the victims with follow-up conversations and communication with the parents.
  • Teach victims coping strategies to prevent future bullying, such as keeping cool, walking away and telling a trusted adult or parent.

Bullying also continues if the bystanders are passive, or actually join in on the bullying. Passive observers may want to stop the incident but lack the confidence. Active observers in some way encourage the bullying.

Children need to be educated as much as - if not more than - the teachers and adults and taught coping strategies.

This Bystander Continuum of Courage tool encourages the following strategies.

  • Do not repeat gossip.
  • Support the victim in private.
  • Alert an adult.
  • Talk to the bully in private.
  • Support the victim in front of the bully, or at the highest form of courage, confront the bully.

Bystanders may themselves feel anxious and worried and develop negative behaviors and mood problems.

Teachers and parents should be aware of signs in the bystanders and encourage communication in a non-judgmental manner. Brainstorm ways to handle these events, and even do some role playing to help.

Check back next week for Breaking Down Bullying, Part II: The Bully. Here, Dr. Kairys will discuss reasons children bully and present strategies to help change bullying behavior.