Bully: Beyond the buzzword

Dr. Novick says that the middle school years are rife with bullying, but older and younger kids face taunting too.

Bullying is one of the hottest buzzwords thrown around any social stratosphere today, from PSAs to catfights on reality TV. It’s become such an overused, abstract concept that it can be hard to tell when bullying is truly taking place. We spoke with Dr. Rona Novick, child psychologist and anti-bullying specialist, to clarify the terminology and explain what to do if bullying is impacting your child’s schoolwork and self-confidence.

How do you define bullying?
“The deliberate abuse of power to harm another person.” The three types of bullying — physical, social and emotional — are defined by the kind of harm that the acts cause. The one that’s least recognized by parents but is particularly painful for children of all ages is social bullying. That’s deliberate social exclusion: “You can’t belong” or “You can’t join us.”

Can people bully without malicious intent?
From a research perspective, bullying involves intent. In the real world, don’t we want to raise children who are kind — both intentionally and inadvertently? I don’t want to raise a child that leaves people out because they don’t pay attention to them any more than I want to raise a child who leaves people out deliberately and out of cruelty. I want to raise a child who has the social blinders off and thinks beyond their own needs about being nice and caring to other people.

What age group is most susceptible to bullying?
We know that the peak years for bullying are grades 4-8. That does not mean that it doesn’t exist in younger children. … Bullies are getting younger and younger. And it certainly continues to high school.

How can you recognize if your child is being bullied?
You have to create the kind of family environment where you do talk to your children about their social lives. Parents have much less awareness of their children’s social whereabouts now. We have to do due diligence. Boys are less likely to reveal than girls, but all children are fairly reluctant to tell parents what is happening. … They believe our involvement will make it worse. They believe we’re going to mess it up.

How do you avoid making a bullying situation worse?
One of the most important things parents can do is help the child to understand that in no way is this the child’s fault. There’s nothing the child does that makes them worthy of being bullied or victimized. It’s never their fault. Say, “I am here for you, I will be here for you. You can tell me about every single time this happens and we will keep working on it until we make this OK.” Bullying is about power, so bullies look for vulnerable targets.

What should you do if your child is around or part of bullying?
It’s a matter of engaging in frequent and ongoing conversations. One trick that parents can use is that children are much more open talking about situations out of a book or TV show than what’s going on in their own life. Once you’re comfortable with that, then you can make the bridge and say, “What about in your school? Could this really happen?”


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