Forget New York. If you can make it in middle school, you can make it anywhere. Think about it: You're barely pubescent when you leave grade school's bright, happy walls, where your name is probably emblazoned on some artwork, for a place with kids who, although they are probably just as scared as you, are bigger.
Until recently, mistreatment in middle school—even the risk of it—was considered a rite of passage. You were merely lucky or unlucky, liked or disliked. You just hoped to survive.
Thankfully, there's been a rethinking of that philosophy. Growing awareness about bullying, and its associated trauma, has created a cultural shift. Today, many communities know not only how to identify and report these occurrences, but also how to prevent and address them.
Some experts say the heightened awareness stems from the Columbine shooting, which was widely reported as a retaliatory attack by a bullied teen—though later accounts dispute that narrative. Other high-profile cases that linked bullying to suicide garnered media attention. Meanwhile, local and grassroots efforts to fight bullying have developing alongside prominent national campaigns. President Obama has made it a cause of his administration, which last year hosted the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention and created the website, StopBullying.gov, with tips to spot and stop bullying. Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey joined Lady Gaga at Harvard for the pop singer's launch of her Born This Way Foundation, which aims to end bullying. This spring, The Weinstein Company released Bully, which documents the lives of five kids, viciously tormented by their peers, and featured an anti-bullying campaign backed by celebrities like Katy Perry, Paula Abdul, Demi Lovato, and Anderson Cooper.
Statistics on the prevalence of bullying range widely, with anywhere from 5 to more than 50 percent of schoolchildren having reported an experience with bullying, says Deborah Temkin, research and policy coordinator for bullying prevention initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. Part of the problem is the lack of a standard definition for bullying, which government agencies are working to establish, as well as insufficient data, she says. Her agency's most recent survey, conducted during the school year ending in 2009, found that 28 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied within the last year. Among that group, 6 percent said they were "cyberbullied."
The incidences peak in middle school, says Robin Young, program associate for the National Crime Prevention Council. These are, of course, awkward and vulnerable years, when people start to physically develop and become more aware of their differences. Cliques take shape and, with them, a social caste system that only adds to one's self-consciousness and desire to fit in. Plus, unlike in grade school, where teachers tend to resolve children's spats, middle schoolers are more likely to go it alone.
In that context, bullying can reflect a sort of social jockeying. But it's more complex than that. Oftentimes, as with any cycle of abuse, the one doing the bullying may be getting bullied by someone else. "Bullying is much more of a cycle than people think," Young says. "The bully at school can be getting bullied at home ... the victim today can be the bully tomorrow."
That outlook helps to refine the approach to identify and heal from bullying behavior, which wreaks havoc on all those involved, including bystanders. Bullies can develop aggressive behavior as adults, while their victims may long grapple with anxiety and depression. A 2008 study in Australia found that adults bullied as kids were three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts as those who weren't bullied.
And while bullying may peak in adolescence, it never disappears—it just morphs into things we've given different labels, like harassment. The difference is that we've matured (hopefully) by adulthood, having acquired skills to manage difficult situations for ourselves—and the children we know and love.
Below, some tools to help you prevent and detect bullying among youth and repair its damage:
1. Talk to your kids. It's not always easy to get your kids to open up to you. But that doesn't mean you should stop trying. Ask every day about their day—who they ate lunch with or played with at recess, suggests Susan Swearer, associate professor of educational psychology who researches bullying at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln. That will lay the groundwork for your children to pipe up about little things, before a crisis emerges, she says. Remember to ask about their online activities as well. Oftentimes, kids don't understand the impact of their online behavior, and require education about privacy settings and their "digital reputation," says Sameer Hinduja, codirector of the CyberBullying Center and assistant criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University. "Broach the topic, even if it seems a little bit clumsy because you don't know the technological jargon," he says. "The Internet is not just part of their lives. It is their lives."
2. Be an example. Your kids are watching—and learning from—your behavior. "If we call someone a name," or "get upset with someone and hang up on [them]," they might follow suit, says Young.
3. Look for changes in your child's behavior or belongings."Trust your instincts," Young says. "You know your child." If an outgoing kid becomes withdrawn or a strong student's grades drop, take notice. Beware, too, of kids feigning excuses, like stomachaches, to stay home from school or taking different routes to school. And pay attention to personal items that are missing, torn, or mysteriously show up in their belongings. These signs may indicate one is being bullied or bullying someone else, Temkin says.
Finally, watch your child's behavior with other kids, such as neighbors and siblings, Swearer says. If you hear your child saying something hurtful, intervene, she says, by stating, "We don't talk that way here, or that's unacceptable."
4. Treat the problem. Your response to bullying behavior will, of course, depend on the incident. But there is plenty of help to guide you. For starters, the child must know to alert a parent or trusted adult on feeling threatened, intimidated, or excluded. What comes next? Document the incident, and reach out to your allies. Ideally, they include the school staff. "It's very important for the parents to have good relationships with their children's teachers" Swearer says. Unless the conflict involves a kid whose parent you know well, it's often best to tackle the incident with the help of a school professional. "When the day is done, most parents are going to defend their children," says Swearer. "If you don't know the other parent at all, and you call them out of the blue, it's probably the rare parent that says, 'Yeah, you're right.'"
If the case involves cyberbullying, contact the Internet service provider to have the offending posts pulled from the site, and work with your child and school to resolve the problem, Hinduja says. Do not respond by shutting off Internet access at home or banning your child's use of Facebook, he warns. "Those are all very, very bad responses, because then the kid is never going to come to you again."
Additional support and protection is available from local law enforcement, your parent-teacher association, and through your state (nearly every state now has anti-bullying laws on its books). Remember, too that the person doing the bullying requires support. "We need to make sure we're supporting those kids, and helping them learn from their behavior, and helping them change," Temkin says. A supportive adult can provide the message that "you don't have to be a bully forever," Young says. "You can start tomorrow and be somebody different."
5. Change the culture. Many of the resources now available aim to promote systemic social change to prevent bullying. For example, the National Crime Prevention Council provides an assessment of a school's climate, training to students, parents, and school staff, and even Powerpoint presentations for communities' own use. Activities that support a more accepting environment might include hosting a "cultural awareness day" or wall art that celebrates diversity, Young says.
The federal government is taking a similar approach. Its effort now features a campaign that targets bystanders, encouraging them to put a stop to bullying. "When they set that peer culture that bullying is not accepted, you get rid of sort of those social gains you might get from bullying," Temkin says. A multitude of additional resources to beat back bullying are available online. Among them are the federal government's initiative (www.stopbullying.gov); the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org); and the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org).