STICKS AND STONES …
Kara Bennett doesn’t know why her classmates turned on her. Some of them had been her friends, but that year they singled her out and began picking on her because she didn’t dress like them, didn’t wear makeup like them and didn’t fix her hair like them. Their insults hurt from the start, and at first, Kara didn’t believe the unkind taunts of her classmates.
“But when it’s just constant, you start to believe,” she says. “ ‘Well, maybe I am fat. Maybe I am worthless. Maybe no one here does like me.’ ”
Kara put up with the bullying on her own and tried to deal with it the best she could — which wasn’t too well. Her mother, Annette, says she was unaware of the cruelty her daughter faced and didn’t realize the impact it was having on her.
“Kara learned to mask her hurt,” Annette says.
As the bullying progressed, Kara began to share some of her hurtful experiences with her mother. Annette tried to make things better for her daughter by contacting the school and even law enforcement when things turned physical. But despite her efforts, little seemed to change.
Then it got worse.
In the winter of 2013, during her freshman year of high school, Kara accused a fellow student — a junior — of raping her. She went to the police, who told her she had no proof; the prosecuting attorney told her and her parents that a trial would be a “horrifying” experience.
When word got out, Kara faced the wrath of several students who hated her for making the accusation. They called her a liar, said the rape never happened, told her she deserved it, called her fat and even told her to go kill herself. There were threats of violence, including death threats. Some of the bullying occurred in person; the rest came through text messages and social media.
That’s when Kara began starving herself and entertaining thoughts of suicide. She started cutting herself.
“I wanted to have control of some part of my life,” she says to explain the cutting. “I wanted to physically see the pain the others were causing.”
Annette knew things were bad, so she arranged for Kara to finish her freshman year through the homebound program, available to students who are unable to attend school due to various physical, behavioral or emotional difficulties. Still, the bullying continued — mostly through social media and texting — and Annette had no idea just how desperate Kara was.
“She couldn’t verbalize that,” Annette says, adding that Kara even lied to the first therapist she took her to see.
Annette admitted Kara to the Missouri Psychiatric Center after finding some of her daughter’s writings on suicide. Kara had never told her parents that she was having suicidal thoughts.
“I think she didn’t want to tell me because it would hurt me,” Annette says. “And I don’t necessarily think she wanted to kill herself. I think she just didn’t know how to deal with it anymore. She didn’t want to deal with that pain anymore. So in her eyes, that was the only way out.”
In the hospital, Kara began dialectic behavior therapy, which covers the core strategies of validation and problem-solving, and teaches mindfulness and distress-tolerance skills. Treatment has helped, Kara says.
“I realized how to deal with bullying and that it isn’t just me,” she says. “I learned a whole bunch of coping methods.”
Kara returned to school last fall for her sophomore year, and some of her fellow students picked up the bullying again.
“But then they started to realize that I’m not going to take it anymore, that I’m putting an end to it when it starts,” she says.
When people say something mean about Kara now, she responds assertively to her tormentors: “That’s false. You just want to get something out of me to make yourself feel better, and you’re really the one who’s struggling here.” Kara also doesn’t hesitate to show her principal any hurtful text message or social media posts she receives; those instances occur less frequently these days.
“It still hurts,” she says of the few bullying incidents that do take place, “but I know what they’re saying isn’t true, and I’m a lot stronger than I was. I’m not as vulnerable.”
Kara says she hopes her story will help other children and teens who suffer at the hands of bullies.
“Because that feeling of not wanting to go to your own school, where you should feel safe, is the worst feeling in the world,” she says.
Kara will return to her same school to start her junior year this month. She won’t be the only bullying victim or survivor on campus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that bullying affects as many as one in four students in Missouri. The CDC calls bullying a public health risk that manifests itself in a variety of health complications ranging from persistent headaches to stomachaches, sleep disorders and mental health problems. Some victims even drop out of school.
It’s really not all that strange that the CDC takes the same view of bullying as it does influenza and HIV/AIDS rates, says Rebekah Freese, a clinical instructor in the University of Missouri School of Social Work. She believes the public health angle is the right approach to combat bullying.
“[The CDC] defines public health as ‘the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities,’ ” Freese says. “Just like HIV/AIDS, bullying is impacting not only individuals but also our communities around us.”
BULLYING IS …
One significant challenge researchers and communities face in dealing with bullying is an inconsistency in defining it. Just this year, in an effort to improve research on bullying, the CDC released the following “uniform definition of bullying”:
Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.
Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.
This new uniform definition builds on one put forward 20 years ago by psychologist Dan Olweus, a pioneer in bullying research and developer of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Both definitions limit bullying to conduct that meets three criteria: behaviors that are aggressive, repeated and involve a power imbalance.
According to the uniform definition, a single incident of mean or aggressive behavior might require discipline — for example, a student gets mad during a game and pushes a smaller student — but it is not bullying. Neither is it bullying in a conflict between two students who are evenly matched — say, two girls who clash because each wants to gain social dominance in a given situation.
“We have to educate the public and parents and students as to what constitutes bullying,” says Susan Perkins, coordinator for elementary guidance and counseling at Columbia Public Schools. “It’s not just being mean to somebody. If kids are having difficulties in their friendships, there can be a bullylike behavior, but we have to keep in mind that these are repeated behaviors … We don’t want to label everything as bullying because when bullying is happening, it’s serious and something that needs to be addressed right away.”
A PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM
Like other public health issues, bullying has its own risk factors, signs and symptoms, complications and protective measures. StopBullying.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, provides information to help the public recognize, respond to, and prevent cases of bullying. The website’s resources, as well as information from Freese, Perkins and Karen Weston, chair of the Columbia College education department, draw a picture of bullying. It isn’t pretty.
There are risk factors for becoming a victim and a bully. Generally, children are more likely to be bullied if they are …
- Perceived as different from their peers — overweight, underweight, dress differently, new to a school or unable to afford the “cool” things.
- Perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves.
- Depressed, anxious or have low self-esteem,
- Less popular, with few or no friends.
- Socially inept and seen as annoying or provoking, or they antagonize others for attention.
Children are more likely to bully others if they …
- Are aggressive or easily frustrated.
- Have less parental involvement or have problems at home.
- Think badly of others.
- Have difficulty following rules.
- View violence in a positive way.
- Have friends who bully others.
“Many bullies are trying to fit in, have the mentality that they are better than others or are mimicking friends or family members who bully,” Freese says.
It’s important to note that bullying is not usually a simple interaction between a child who bullies and a child who is bullied. Instead, it often involves groups who support each other in bullying others.
Signs & Symptoms
Recognizing the warning signs is an important first step in taking action against bullying. Statistics from the 2008-2009 School Crime Supplement show that an adult was notified in only about one-third of bullying cases.
There are several reasons why children don’t tell adults about bullying, and understanding these reasons can make it easier for adults to help bullying victims.
- Bullying can make a child feel helpless. Victims may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again; they may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale.
- Children may fear backlash from the one who bullied them.
- Bullying can be a humiliating experience. Children may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They also may fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak.
- Bullying victims may already feel socially isolated, convinced that no one cares or could understand.
- Children fear rejection by their peers. Friends can help protect others from bullies, but victims fear losing this support.
Adults should follow up with children exhibiting any of these signs of being bullied:
- Unexplainable injuries.
- Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, etc.
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches, feeling sick or faking illness.
- Changes in eating habits, such as skipping meals or binge eating. Children may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
- Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.
- Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or refusing to go to school.
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations.
- Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem.
- Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about suicide.
These warning signs can also point to other issues or problems, such as depression or substance abuse, so it’s important to talk to children to determine what is causing their stress.
Bullying causes physical, social, emotional and academic harm.
“Common issues for the victim are that they feel unsafe, they begin to isolate, shut down and often appear depressed,” Freese says. “If it is not resolved, bullying has been known to lead to suicide and acting out in violence toward others, [including] becoming a bully.”
Along with depression, children who are bullied are more likely to experience anxiety, loneliness and changes in sleep and eating patterns. Research shows these issues may persist into adulthood.
Other complications for bullying victims include health complaints, such as frequent headaches or stomachaches, and decreased academic achievement and school participation. Bullied children are more likely to miss, skip or drop out of school.
For some children, therapy can help avoid these complications, Weston says.
“If your child seems to be very depressed or highly anxious and that continues, usually we say more than a couple of weeks, at least check out whether they might need some therapy,” she says.
Those who bully also need help to avoid their own set of negative outcomes — at risk to abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults; get into fights, vandalize property and drop out of school; engage in early sexual activity; accumulate criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults; and abuse their romantic partners, spouses or children as adults.
“For the bully, they are not learning how to socialize in a [healthy] way,” Freese says. “They are not learning appropriate means to express their emotions and deal with anger or depression.”
Bystanders, too, face negative effects. Children who witness bullying are more likely to use tobacco, alcohol or other drugs; to have increased mental health problems, including depression and anxiety; and to miss or skip school.
Protecting students from bullying doesn’t stop at prevention. Children must be protected from the adverse effects. Schools have many options to address bullying, but parents, too, can take action to help safeguard their children from the harm of bullying.
1. Parents can help children understand bullying. Tapping into descriptions and information resources, parents can teach their children what bullying looks like.
“Talk to your kids about whether they’ve been bullied, do they know someone who is bullied, what is their plan if they were to get bullied?” Freese says.
More questions parents can ask their children:
- What does “bullying” mean to you?
- Describe what bullies are like. Why do you think people bully?
- Have you ever felt scared to go to school because of bullying? What ways have you tried to change it?
- What do you think parents can do to help stop bullying?
- Do you ever see kids at your school being bullied by other kids? How does it make you feel?
- Have you ever tried to help someone who is being bullied? What happened? What would you do if it happens again?
Parents should talk to their children about the harm caused by bullying so they will understand why it’s unacceptable and why it’s important for them to seek help if it happens to them or someone they know.
“This isn’t a one-time conversation,” Freese notes. “It should be woven into the conversations that parents have with their kids frequently.”
2. Parents can teach children how to stand up safely to bullying. Offer specific actions, Weston says. That might mean devising an acceptable comeback — such as, “Why say that stuff to me? I know it’s not true” — or helping children develop more confident body language, such as walking with head up, making eye contact and smiling.
Weston adds, however, that most bullying victims won’t become more assertive overnight — and that’s one reason children need to know that standing up can also mean getting an adult to help.
3. Parents can encourage children to do what they love. “Parents can get kids involved in different activities, whether it’s sports or music, where they’ll have a group of friends who enjoy doing some of the same things they do,” Weston says. “Having friends around them who are supporting them is important so they’re not believing what the bully is saying about them.”
4. Parents can model kindness and respect. “Watch how you respond to the customer service representatives,” Freese says. “How are you answering the phone? How do you talk about your boss at home? Do you gossip about others in the earshot of your children? [How do you respond] to jokes made by others in private and in public?
“I encourage all parents to think of themselves as being on stage with a big spotlight on their every move,” Freese continues. “We all will stumble and fall, and when we do, [we need to be] vulnerable with our children by saying, “I really messed up here, and my plan to change this behavior is …”
5. Parents can keep the lines of communication open. “Start early; practice talking with your child about their day, who are their friends, what happened at school,” Freese says. “A typical response from a child is, ‘My day was good.’ Have them describe the day.”
And don’t let the conversation drop when the child becomes a teenager, Freese adds. “Teens are very private and want to be independent, and it is more crucial than ever to be communicating in a validating and nonjudgmental way with your teen,” she says.
Annette Bennett urges parents to get help for their children, as she did for Kara.
“The only thing I can say is to seek professional help,” she says, “and make sure that the therapist is right for your child … and if that therapy doesn’t work, don’t stop. Find a different one, or things will get worse. They’re not going to get any better [without help], and it’s not just going to go away.”
Freese points out that bullying does not have to happen.
“Bullying is a public health issue that is totally preventable,” she says. “It will take each and every citizen making a conscious effort to remedy this problem.”
Forms Of Bullying
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines four types of bullying:
1. Physical bullying involves causing harm to someone’s body. Examples include hitting, kicking, punching, spitting, tripping and pushing.
2. Verbal bulling is saying or writing mean things. Examples include teasing, name-calling, threatening or offensive notes or hand gestures, inappropriate sexual comments and verbal threats.
3. Relational bullying, sometimes referred to as social bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Examples include leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone and embarrassing someone in public.
4. Property bullying, sometimes included in physical bullying, is the theft or damage of someone’s property. Examples include taking something that belongs to someone else and refusing to give it back, altering or destroying property, and deleting personal electronic information.
Cyberbullying, or bullying carried out through cellphones, computers, tablets and other electronic devices, is called “electronic bullying” by the CDC, and is described as one context in which verbal, relational and property bullying occurs.
It’s important to remember that those who bully others do not need to be stronger or bigger than those they bully. The power imbalance can come from a number of sources — popularity, strength, cognitive ability — and children who bully may have more than one of these characteristics.
Bullying Policies At School
Missouri Revised Statutes §160.775 requires every school district to have an anti-bullying policy, which, among other points, must “contain a statement of the consequences of bullying” and “require district employees to report any instance of bullying of which the employee has firsthand knowledge.”
Michelle Baumstark, community relations director for Columbia Public Schools, says the district meets the law with a “number of policies that address bullying, hazing and harassment.” One policy is titled “Hazing and Bullying” and labeled as “JFCF.” This policy provides a definition of bullying — “intimidation or harassment of a student or multiple students perpetuated by individuals or groups” — and also covers cyberbullying — “sending or posting harmful or cruel text or images using the Internet or other digital communication devices” — and cyberthreats — “online materials that threaten or raise concerns about violence against others, suicide or self-harm.”
The district’s student discipline policy, labeled “JG-R,” also covers bullying. It adds “repeated and systematic” to the definition and provides a list of potential consequences that range from an administrator/student conference to expulsion. It is the same set of consequences listed for 25 other forms of “prohibited conduct,” which range from public displays of affection to arson.
“Each situation that we are made aware of is investigated and evaluated to determine exactly what has happened so that we can deal with that case specifically,” says Carla London, supervisor of student and family advocacy for Columbia Public Schools.
Bullying Prevention At School
At Columbia Public Schools, multiple programs provide messages to counter bullying. These include the guidance program curriculum, which offers instruction in interpersonal relationships; the Positive Behavior Interventions & Support program, which sets schoolwide expectations taught in classrooms and assemblies; and U Matter, a campaign that primarily aims to prevent student alcohol and drug consumption but also covers making the right decisions in general.
Some of the instruction is specific to bullying, but much of it comes at bullying from other angles, such as teaching conflict resolution, mindfulness and problem-solving skills.
According to StopBullying.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the prevention approaches that show the most promise involve the entire school community in creating a culture of respect.
That’s the goal at Columbia Public Schools, says Susan Perkins, coordinator for elementary guidance and counseling in the school district.
“We’ve really talked about digging deeper into developing skills that prevent the bullying,” she says, “so if we can help kids develop the empathy and the problem-solving skills, then hopefully, kids will be able to avoid becoming a bully, as well as be able to address the bullying issue.”
What To Do If Your Child Is Bullied
Children aren’t the only ones who don’t report bullying. Parents, too, sometimes hesitate to contact the school because they think it won’t help or will make the situation worse.
Those parents need to know that counselors and administrators get that concern, says Betsy Jones, counseling coordinator for grades 6 to 12 at Columbia Public Schools.
“You can call and have a confidential conversation with a counselor or an assistant principal to have them observe and see what they notice,” she says. The idea, she notes, is to alert the school to where and when the bullying is happening so adults there can make a report based on their own observations and avoid disclosing the report of the parent or student.
Another option for students and parents is the Missouri School Violence Hotline, which provides four ways to give an anonymous report of bullying and other incidents of school violence:
- Call 866-748-7047.
- Fill out an online form, available at www.schoolviolencehotline.com.
- Download the free “MO ReportIt” application.
- Text to 847411 using the keyword “Reportit.” Include school name and city.
In the CDC’s 2013 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 25.5 percent of Missouri respondents — or 1 in 4 — reported being bullied on school property during the 12 months before the survey. Nationwide, the percentage was 19.6, or 1 in 5.
Parents of children and teens who use cellphones and/or social media sites should watch for signs of involvement in cyberbullying, which can take the form of mean text messages or emails; rumors sent on email or posted on social networking sites; and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites and fake profiles.
StopBullying.gov offers parents these tips for keeping up with children online:
- Know the sites your children visit and their online activities. Ask where they’re going, what they’re doing and whom they’re doing it with.
- Tell your children that you may review their online communications if you think there is reason for concern. Installing parental control filtering software or monitoring programs provides options for monitoring your child’s online behavior, but do not rely solely on these tools.
- Have a sense of what they do online and in texts. Learn about the sites they like. Try out the devices they use.
- Ask for their passwords, but tell them you’ll only use them in case of emergency.
- Ask to “friend” or “follow” your children on social media sites, or ask another trusted adult to do so.
- Encourage your children to tell you immediately if they or someone they know is being cyberbullied. Explain that you will not take away their computers or cellphones if they confide in you about a problem they are having.