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Is Bullying on Your Mind? It's on Ours.
Posted 02/08/2012 12:48PM

Is Bullying on Your Mind?

It’s on Ours.


Bullying is, no doubt, among the hottest topics in today’s world: in schools, on the neighborhood playground, at the mall, and most of all, over every airwave humans can access. The bad news is that we seem to be hearing and reading about “bullying” everywhere we look. The good news according to our recent speaker Elizabeth Englander[1], is that the term is misunderstood and therefore overused . . . thank goodness! While bullying absolutely exists, it is not so prevalent as reports would suggest.

Many people, including an inordinate number in the media, are mistakenly using the term to describe any altercation or disagreement a child might have; this overuse has resulted in a “culture of victimization." Remember when grabbing someone else’s pencil was regarded as just plain mean? In today’s world, that pencil-grabbing child may be sent to the principal’s office for such an act. While none of us condone grabbing without asking or taking something that does not belong to you, this exchange can prove to be beneficial (if handled productively) for both the grabber and the grabbed. We as humans are predisposed to have the capacity to identify what we like, and in turn go after it. There are the right ways to do this, and of course, the wrong ways. We as parents and/or educators spend our days not only teaching right from wrong, but also practicing this well-honed skill.

In the above example, when addressed in a timely and appropriate manner, the grabber can learn that one must do more to earn what she wants than simply grab, while the grabbed individual learns the most valuable quality: resilience. According to Dr. Englander, the line that separates mean, selfish, annoying, obnoxious, intrusive, thoughtless, heartless, and other undesirable qualities from bullying is thick and clear-cut. To identify a behavior as “bullying," we must ask if the action is:



Illustrate a power imbalance


If the answer is ‘Yes’ to all four questions (three doesn’t fulfill the criteria), then that person is indeed a bully.

In spite of the fact that the word may be overused, bullying is still far more prevalent than it used to be. While bullying was once regarded to be a fringe behavior that was predominately physical, it has recently become a more mainstream behavior. What happened to the fistfight in the hallway? While it still occurs, it is simply too overt. Today’s bullying is less physical. Instead, it can be seen as what is referred to as a “gateway behavior," or an unpleasant, subtle social behavior that expresses dominance without breaking rules, such as eye rolling, back turning, whispering, etc. These are behaviors that don’t threaten the letter of the law, but instead the spirit of the law.[2] Taken alone these behaviors might be considered mild; however, when they occur on a more frequent basis they contribute to a climate of contempt.

During her presentation, Dr. Englander offered hard data from her extensive research. She stressed that teachers and adults, when observing gateway behaviors, must respond publicly and immediately. They must also make a point of communicating their message by being personally offended at a student’s or child’s behavior; not only does this approach deflect the attention from the intended “victim”, but also throws the burden of the moment onto the observed “bully”.  The research shows that male cyber bullies tend to attack strangers, acquaintances, or people who were friends long ago. Girls, on the other hand, tend to attack their friends or those with whom they have recently been friends; this is troublesome on so many levels. Dr. Englander suggested that we must emphasize the following:

  • Don’t text when you are mad.
  • You are not invisible.
  • You must talk if you are targeted.
  • The small behaviors count.
  • Talk, talk, talk…it really helps. (For years we have told those who are bullied to go to an adult; this backfires, and we all know it. Talk to a friend, lots of friends; they, in turn, should talk to an adult.)

Bullying has evolved over the past few decades. Given the prominence of powerful technology in our lives, and easy access to it at younger and younger ages, the opportunity for a far broader impact is enormous, especially given the immaturity of those who possess Smartphones, iPods, laptops, tablets and the like. The problem with the ever-increasing digital communications is that emotions, both good and bad, become inflated. Digital communication decreases both the opportunities to practice social skills in difficult situations and the ability to study nonverbal social cues. It also lacks tone, which makes it so much easier to misconstrue.

In addition to her suggestions to the faculty, Dr. Englander offered some takeaways to the parents as well:

  • While your child understands technology, she struggles to grasp the impact it can have on others; reversely, parents understand the impact, but not the technology. Work together and make smart decisions.
  • Coach your daughter to think, think, think, before hitting “Send” on all electronic messages. Help her understand the consequences of her actions. Ten years of “thinking before sending,” creates an empathic, responsible, socially competent adult.
  • Spend time together as a family; it’s the counter point to the social frenzy that is needed to keep your child’s life balanced. The more time a child spends with her family, the more able she is to deal successfully with social conflict. Make the time; create the time. It will pay off.
  • Parent, guide, and coach your child about the power of technology. Be aware of what your child is saying and doing online. Let her know you will monitor regularly. Taking access away doesn’t help; as we all know, children will find a way to access it anyway.

Click here for resources

[1] * Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology; Professor of Psychology at Bridgewater State University (Massachusetts); Author of three editions of Understanding Violence & dozens of other articles & book chapters; Guest Editor for Special Edition: Cyberbullying of the Journal of Social Sciences; Founder & Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center  (at Bridgewater State University).


[2] Englander, Elizabeth, Lecture to Lincoln School Faculty. Lincoln School. Providence, RI. 31 January 2012.

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