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 many communities deeply engaged in efforts to combat and prevent such behavior.
Anti-bullying campaigns kicked into high gear in recent years amid high-profile cases such as Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts and Ty Field-Smalley of Utah, 11-year-olds who committed suicide after enduring relentless bullying by their peers. President Barack Obama cited those cases in 2011 when he and first lady Michelle Obama hosted the first White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. In 2012, Oprah Winfrey joined Lady Gaga at Harvard University for the pop singer's launch of her Born This Way Foundation, which aims to end bullying. That same year, The Weinstein Company released the documentary "Bully," which follows several families who suffered the consequences of bullying and launched an anti-bullying campaign backed by public figures such as Demi Lovato and Anderson Cooper.
So, how have these efforts fared? Well, they could be better. Bullying statistics in the National Crime Victimization Survey released in June indicate a steady trend in bullying from 2005 to 2011, says Deborah Temkin, bullying prevention manager for the RFK Speak Truth To Power Program at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. In 2011, the most recent year for data collected, 28 percent of youth ages 12 and 18 reported being bullied; 9 percent reported being a victim of cyberbullying. While rates haven't increased, they haven't dropped either, Temkin says. "It tells us that perhaps our efforts aren't strong enough."
Temkin dismissed a recent study released in the Journal of Criminology that showed anti-bullying efforts might be counterproductive. She says the data is insufficient and points out that schools must find the specific approach that works for them. That requires surveying their students and analyzing the school environment to apply a thoughtful strategy. "A lot of the things that would work for one school, that may not work for another school," she says.
Bullying incidences peak in middle school, says Robin Young, program manager for the National Crime Prevention Council. These are awkward and vulnerable years, when kids 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 an adolescent's desire to fit in. Plus, unlike in grade school where teachers tend to resolve spats between kids, middle school students are more likely to resolve issues among themselves.
In that context, bullying can result from jockeying for social status. But it's more complex than that. Often, as with any cycle of abuse, the one doing the bullying may be getting bullied by someone else. "The bully at school can be getting bullied at home," Young says. "The victim today can be the bully tomorrow."
That outlook helps to refine the approach to identify and prevent 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 more likely to have suicidal thoughts compared to those who weren't. And while bullying may peak in adolescence, it never disappears – it just morphs into things we've given different labels, like harassment.
Below are 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, 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. Ask about their online activities as well. Often, kids don't understand the impact of their online behavior and require education about privacy settings and their "digital reputation," says Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and 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, Young says.
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 a child is being bullied or bullying someone else, Temkin says.
4. Treat the problem. Your response to bullying behavior will depend on the incident. But there is plenty of help to guide you. For starters, the child must alert a parent or trusted adult when feeling threatened, intimidated or excluded. Then, document the incident, and reach out to your allies. "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 who can act as a mediator. "When the day is done, most parents are going to defend their children," she says.
If the case involves cyberbullying, contact website administrators 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."
Remember that the person doing the bullying requires help, too. 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."
[Read: Teen Stress: How Parents Can Help.]
Many 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 and training to students, parents and school staff. The federal government has a similar approach with its "Be More than a Bystander" campaign, which encourages witnesses to put a stop to bullying.
A multitude of bullying prevention resources are available online, including the federal government's initiative; the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning; and the National Crime Prevention Council.
Updated on 10/15/2013: This story was originally published on Sept. 15, 2012.