Until recently, bullying was written off as a rite of passage; it was just another part of childhood. But we now know that it can be prevented. For advice on how to protect your child, we turned to the "Bully Coach": Joel Haber, Ph.D., author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life.
Parent & Child: What is bullying all about and when does it usually begin?
Joel Haber: Bullying is really about power — it's a game of power in which kids use hurtful behavior to increase their own power, even if it means making someone else feel bad. There's also another force in play: social dominance. Everyone wants to be on top; it's a human trait. There are many types of bullying, including physical abuse, verbal bullying, and exclusion, which is really awful for kids.
Some recent studies have shown bullying in girls at age 3, and we often see early signs of bullying in siblings. Kids will practice power games with each other at home, but once kids begin to play with each other and start going to school, the power games become much clearer. Bullying really begins when kids are in groups, and there is a fight for dominance.
P&C: In looking at the dynamic of bullying, what issues need to be addressed in order to prevent the problem?
Haber: There is a misunderstanding that we just need to address the bullies, who create the problem — and that's really not true. The key is to address both sides: the victims and the bullies. Bullies need empathy skills, and victims need to learn not to react out of emotion. The whole social dominance thing is very powerful, and bullying is a game. If bullies see that they can get a reaction (anger, crying, and so on) from the victim, they are going to want to make it happen over and over again. The kids who become victims play a big role in the bully dynamic as well. Children who are victimized have reactions that make them even more likely to be a target, so I'm a really firm believer in helping kids learn to stop that behavior.
P&C: What role do bystanders play?
Haber: Bullying happens when adults aren't around. Generally the bystanders are about 85 percent of kids who observe bullying and don't act for fear of becoming victims. There are certain kids who are open to standing up for another kid, but they're pretty secure and don't worry much about their own position on the social ladder. You can find kids who are secure and can join the targeted child — this gives the child power, and then the bullying stops.
P&C: What can parents do to stop the bullying cycle?
Haber: The first thing parents should think about is what kind of messages they are sending. For example, when there is a conflict at home, there might be one parent who always wins and one parent who always loses. Kids can develop patterns of either being a target or a bully when they have that very strong power imbalance at home. We also don't realize or think about the behaviors we're doing in front of our kids or others, but all of us talk about people behind their backs. If we can be more aware of those behaviors, we can teach our kids that we're human, but we don't really like that behavior.
And of course parents really have to be in touch with their children. I have a program in the book designed to help parents talk to their children about bullying, how to get those questions answered, and how to create a plan if they have a problem.