By Hugh C. McBride
The reports from school, the reactions of friends (or former friends), the aggression that is starting to be turned toward you -- no matter how much you don't want to admit it, the signs have become impossible to ignore.
Your child is a bully.
From the moment you first enrolled your child in school, you've been preparing yourself for a wide range of challenges, from academic struggles to lunchroom dramas to the aftermath of that first romantic entanglement. But bullying? That one wasn’t on the agenda.
It is now -- and if you don’t take the right steps, this unfortunate turn of events could affect your child’s development.
What Is Bullying?
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes bullying as "a form of abuse, harassment and violence" that meets the following three criteria:
1. A power imbalance exists between the bully and the victim.
2. The bully's power is derived from physical size, strength, verbal skill, popularity, or gender.
3. The bully's target feels tormented, helpless, and defenseless.
Bullying can consist of physical violence, verbal abuse, or psychological torment, and can occur directly (hitting, shoving, threatening) and indirectly (excluding, shunning, or harassing via e-mail or online social networking). The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has reported that as many as 50 percent of all young people are bullied at least once during their school years, with about one in 10 suffering from ongoing harassment and abuse.
How Harmful Is Bullying?
For parents of potential bullies, the obvious bad news is that bullying is an almost universally despised act that has the potential to inflict considerable damage on both victims and perpetrators.
The trauma of being bullied impacts the academic progress and social development of thousands of young people across the country, and the physical and emotional pain of this abuse can range from devastating to deadly. In April 2009 alone, two 11-year-old bullying victims killed themselves because they couldn’t take the abuse any longer – and these two boys are unfortunately far from alone in the decision they made to escape their tormentors.
But the victims of bullying aren’t the only ones who are hurt by the activity. Though some school personnel may advocate a purely punitive "lock ‘em up and throw away the key" policy of suspending or expelling students who engage in bullying, the problem is much more complex than merely rooting out the "bad" kids.
Bullying is, instead, often a symptom of an underlying condition or disorder. Though this sounds like -- and, indeed, can be -- a significant mental health challenge, the good news is that the problems that lead to bullying can be treated, and with effective intervention children can overcome the internal and external obstacles that are preventing them from acting in a more appropriate manner. If you have discovered that your child is being a bully, the situation is urgent, but it is far from hopeless.
What Should I Do?
Dealing with a child who is bullying others is far from a simple task. However, to avoid being overwhelmed by the potential enormity of the endeavor, divide the process into three distinct steps:
Step #1: Talk -- Even if you have witnessed your child acting in an aggressive or demeaning manner toward others, and especially if this information has come to your attention secondhand, it’s important that you talk to your child about the behavior to help determine what led up to what you saw or heard about.
If the behavior in question is in response to a specific conflict or stressor, addressing that problem may put an end to the aggressiveness. However, if you discover that your child’s actions do rise to the level of bullying, then further action is required.
Step #2: Learn -- Speak to teachers, coaches, parents of your child's friends, and any others who interact with your child and can give you additional information about bullying or similar behaviors. Meet with your child's school counselors or consult with your family physician to explore underlying issues and learn about the methods and philosophies of dealing with childhood bullying.
If your child is found to be suffering from a mental health condition or behavioral disorder, you will need to educate yourself about both the condition itself and the treatment opportunities that are available. Again, the information you are attempting to take in can appear to be intimidating – so don't be afraid to take notes, ask a lot of questions, and reach out to anyone who can share their expertise or experiences with you.
Step #3: Act -- Once you have verified your child's behavior problems and identified the most likely causes of these issues, you will need to decide upon the best course of action. The following section outlines some of the options that have helped other families whose children’s behavior had gotten out of hand.
Who Can Help My Child?
Certain types of unacceptable behavior are simply the result of too much freedom or too little discipline. But bullying often results from a more complex set of circumstances, and thus requires a more intricate or methodical approach to end the behavior and put the child back on the path to a positive future.
Some teen bullies respond to mentoring or informal counseling from a respected adult (such as a teacher, coach, or family friend), while others are better served by a more formal arrangement (such as regular outpatient therapy sessions).
For bullies whose behavior is particularly acute or has proved to be resistant to less intensive forms of intervention, enrollment in a wilderness program or other comprehensive residential program for adolescents may be the best option.
For example, in Shoshone, Idaho, the SUWS Youth Program offers an outdoor experiential program that addresses the needs of youth ages 11 to 13 who are demonstrating negative behaviors and unhealthy coping patterns.
During the 28 days or longer that students stay at SUWS Youth, they participate in a challenging and rewarding experience that features personal guidance, therapeutic support, and tangible, goal-based learning opportunities -- all of which are designed to address the underlying causes of their negative behaviors and help them work through the impasses that have resulted from their internal struggles.
For older students (ages 14 to 17) who require a similar level of intervention, the SUWS Adolescent Program employs an innovative and effective "search and rescue" model to help participants discover their inner strengths, realize their true personal value, and put an end to the unhealthy and destructive attitudes and behaviors that have derailed their ability to make a positive contribution to their families, schools, and communities.
Admitting that your child has become a bully can be difficult, but the repercussions of failing to address the situation can be devastating. As with many of life's challenges, acknowledging the problem is the first step toward finding the solution -- and when it comes to childhood bullying, that solution can be literally life-saving.