The Broad Reach of Bullying: How Communities—Not Just Kids—Suffer

By Dawn Van Osdell

During the fall of second grade, Bobby Burk routinely surprised my younger brother, Danny, with a sucker punch to the stomach as he was getting off the school bus. Bobby must have seen the quick sock to the gut, delivered just seconds before the bus’s automatic doors shut and shielded him from retaliation, as an effective way to torment the new kid. Just as clearly as I remember my brother’s choking sobs, I remember how the cruel behavior affected other people, too—mostly my mother, who was angry and frustrated with the bus driver, who undoubtedly felt that disciplining someone else’s child wasn’t her job; and uneasy about calling Bobby’s mother to address the problem. I also remember striking Bobby’s older sister from my list of possible new friends. She was guilty by association to her brother, who had tainted our whole family's transition to a new neighborhood in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. 

That happened in 1983, a decade before Bobby’s brand of unkindness was definitively labeled bullying. Today, his actions would be defined by the American Psychological Association as a form of aggressive behavior—manifesting in physical contact, words, or more subtle actions—in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. In the past 30 years, we’ve been educated to see that this behavior is not simply “kids being kids,” and the media has broadcast the worst about its lasting, irrefutable, devastating damage to its victims, as well as its perpetrators. What we don’t hear so much about, though, is how bullying affects our larger communities of parents, teachers and administrators, and neighbors.  

Bullying is a complex issue that takes an emotional toll on all the lives it touches. Jean McPhee, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist who has worked with children and schools to help kids navigate the challenges of childhood, says, “Bullying often causes parents to take sides, and their relationships with each other and with their children’s schools become complicated and messy.” This may explain why it’s such a tough subject to get people to talk about—in fact, all the parents who spoke to me for this article asked for anonymity.

In a recent study, about 49 percent of kids in grades 4 through 12 reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the last one-month period, and 30 percent fessed up to doing the bullying themselves. Bullying is clearly happening, and with regularity. However, ask parents and teachers if they’ve seen it first hand and they are often reluctant to admit they know anything about it. Teachers often insist, “I’d never let that happen in my classroom!” And there’s a “not my kid” mentality in some parents, who fear their kid will be retaliated against if they expose harassment.

Another component of the uneasiness around the topic concerns uncertainty over how to best deal with this issue. Frustratingly, research shows that most people would rather remain neutral about a bullying situation than take a stand against it, either because they don’t know how best to respond and feel helpless, or because they fear their involvement will make things worse on the victim. Obviously, the victim of a bully deserves protection and research also bears out that there’s no better advocate for him or her than a parent—although McPhee says children should first be encouraged to speak up to the bully, calling out the behavior as hurtful and asking for it to stop. If it continues, it becomes the parents' responsibility to navigate the often-murky problem-solving waters in their communities without alienating their child, their family, or themselves by causing those involved to feel they have to take sides. It’s no mean feat.

Even before parents get involved, schools should be the first line of defense against bullying. But according to Christine Ramich, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who often addresses bullying behaviors within schools, the relationship between schools and bullies, and schools and the parents of children being bullied, is fraught. Schools are “not only charged with educating kids, they are charged with keeping them safe in an environment and a world that is much scarier than it once was,” she says. Administrators fear they’ll be regarded as failures if bullying is happening under their noses. But many of them, though well versed in bullying through professional development programs and anti-bullying campaigns, and committed to prevention strategies, are truly unaware that the problem exists in their classrooms. This is because bullying typically happens in places where kids aren’t observed—locker rooms, hallways, the bus—and also online, via sites like SnapChat and Burn Note.

“It’s horrifying what kids are doing to each other on social media, sending ostracizing posts that are seen by so many,” says Jared Milo*, a dad of a first-year middle schooler who’s been the victim of cyber bullying. He, like other parents in his predicament, is frustrated that schools can’t properly protect kids, and fearful that any attempt to advocate on their behalf will lead to further humiliation.

But, says Ramich, dealing with bullying doesn’t have to be a parent-vs.-school type of situation. “We’re not always enlisting our schools in the right ways,” she insists. Rather than accusing administrators of not doing their job when a child has been victimized, she advises parents whenever possible to “have the school feeling like you are rowing the boat in the same direction.” Parents should carefully document instances of inappropriate behavior to show it’s not a one-time offense, and spell out what they’d like school officials to do to help correct the situation. Often, the most effective strategy is for school officials to talk to the offender, spread awareness of the problem, and perhaps enlist a guidance counselor to meet with the bullied child to help empower him. Research also shows that it’s best for the school to privately involve the bully’s parents rather than to create a confrontation between families, which can cause the targeted child to feel further victimized.

When schools (and parents) don’t effectively address the problem, everybody loses. Kelly Gibs, a former high school teacher, says she homeschooled a teen whose mother became exasperated that her school wasn’t doing enough to stop rampant bullying. In so doing, she managed to protect her daughter but socially isolated her to the degree that she begged to be sent to a new school the following year. The school she’d left behind was stuck with the bully, who could easily move on to a new victim. “Any aggressive behavior changes the climate and makes others feel less safe, [too],” says McPhee. “It impacts learning and teamwork, and there is a lack of respect and a disregard for the well-being of all kids.” If the school had been better able to address the bullying behavior, the teen wouldn’t have had to adjust to a new school and other students would also be safer in that original environment.

Even more complicated for parents is approaching other moms and dads in situations that occur outside school. Mary Pulido, executive director of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, says a bully needs to be held accountable and the best way to do this is to involve his or her parents—no matter how uncomfortable it is. “For most parents, this confrontation is not so easy, especially if the parent is a friend,” she says. She warns parents that the intervention may be complex.

“It’s a risky move to make that call,” says Ramich. You never know what the parent of the accused may say, since you are “basically hanging a sign that says their kid is less than perfect.” Kristin Hall* approached her friend, the mother of her 10-year-old daughter, Kate’s*, bully, in a non-confrontational way, asking for help rather than making an accusation. “I’m not asking that your child be my daughter’s best friend, but maybe could she give her a smile so that she feels more comfortable and not so alone,” she asked the bully’s mother. This approach put the bully, who was excluding Kate, on her mother’s radar screen, alerted the bully that someone was watching, and let Kate know that her mother supported her. Hall says that the soft, non-confrontational approach was easier on both her and the other mother, and likely more effective than accusing her friend’s daughter of bullying.

While in this instance it did succeed in putting an end to the bullying—and likely, relievingly, saved a parent-to-parent relationship—there are no guarantees. Lilly Osbun* got more than she bargained for when she confronted a neighbor about her son’s bullying. “She was outraged and denied that her son had struck my child, despite the fact that several others kids had stepped up to confirm what had happened,” says Osbun. Even though the kids were able to make amends, the parents’ friendship was destroyed by the confrontation.

When bullying occurs between the children of adult friends, or within a close-knit playgroup or neighborhood, the path of least resistance is often to simply disengage from the group. Anita Rosario*, a mother to three young kids, says she and her husband would love to spend time with a couple they’ve been friends with since their children were babies. But they’ve stopped inviting the family to neighborhood get-togethers because their child routinely bullies the Rosario’s 9-year-old daughter, belittling her and excluding her from activities. “It’s just not worth seeing my child squirm,” says Rosario. According to McPhee, though, “If left unaddressed, with one family just drifting away from the other, no one really learns how to solve the problem,” and the entire neighborhood dynamic changes. It’s not only incredibly complicated for families connected by neighborhood to maneuver around each other. But the culture of hurtful behavior and lack of communication around the problem continues.

We’ve come a long way in recognizing and raising awareness of bullying, but still have a long way to go in protecting our communities from it, says Pulido. “Parents, schools, and neighborhoods need to work together to develop a culture where bullying is simply not tolerated,” she says. We need to talk openly with each other about the problem and together create accepting, compassionate communities for our kids and ourselves.

My brother’s second grade year and my family’s move to a new neighborhood may have been infinitely kinder and gentler if three decades ago, one of us had been able to start the conversation..

For more information on the prevention of bullying and tips on how to handle a bullying situation, see Parentfuther.com, Stopbullying.gov, Stopbullyingnow.com, and Cyberangel.org.

Photograph by Milada Vigerova, via Creative Commons