OPINION: Getting to the bottom of bullying behavior
Bullying and harassment come in many forms. They may be overt or subtle, intentional or unintentional. According to the nonprofit research group Child Trends, "bullying commonly means aggressive behavior in the context of a power imbalance that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time." On average, 28 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds are bullied each year. Boys and girls alike are susceptible to becoming victims or aggressors.
In my family, our children have been on both sides of the bullying spectrum. None of the situations has been easy. Our values about how to treat others are clear and discussed often.
"You are not allowed to be bullies," we firmly remind the children. "Do not tolerate bullying from others. You deserve a safe and comfortable school environment. If there is a problem, tell us. We will help. Outside of school, the same rules apply. Be kind. Be safe. Let us know if something's not OK. Take responsibility for your actions and realize that what you do and say affects others. Learn from your mistakes. Treat others how you want to be treated."
Helping guide our children through bullying scenarios over the years has taught us to be thoughtful and purposeful in our responses. Receiving harsh words, being spat on at bus stops, text messages containing intimidation and threats from a friend of a friend, rejecting classmates they think are annoying, being the rejected annoying classmate, taking jokes too far —we've seen it all.
At each stage, we have tried to take a reasonable approach. How do we protect our child if they've been a victim? When they are the aggressor, how do we promote our child's positive development while simultaneously helping to restore a classmate or friend they might have hurt?
On Thursday, the Anchorage School District will address these and other questions through an anti-bullying community conversation, during which the district says its staff will "share tips on how to have conversations at home, at school and in the community to prevent bullying and harassment, and how to build social and emotional skills."
"Communicating with your child and consistent dialog is really important," Superintendent Ed Graff said in a recent interview. Nurturing problem-solving skills and developing an internal sense for what it means to be respectful, even when you're frustrated, are main goals.
One tip from Graff? If your child brings up the topic of a bully or a kid who's mean, they're probably doing it because they need you to get involved.
Brian Burton, an Anchorage police officer who works as a school resource officer, agrees that early intervention —which involves teaching your children how to say "stop" — is key.
"The first thing you should do is say, 'Stop. You're harassing me. Leave me alone.' If you start getting harassed, start getting bullied, you have to let someone know. Quickly. You have to let someone know so we can stop it," Burton said.
Bullying and harassment can have consequences at school and in the courts. It may be physical, verbal or social. Harassment can be anything from inappropriate touching to offensive physical contact or verbalizing inappropriate things. Kids who do it are subject to suspensions and, if a crime has been committed, criminal charges.
Alerting someone that they need to stop is important for two reasons. First, it can help establish a pattern for ongoing harassment — bullies are more likely to stop if called out on their behavior. Second, "getting the parents involved backs the kids down pretty quickly," Burton said.
Burton spends a lot of time mediating small issues so kids and families have an opportunity to learn from a mistake and, hopefully, avoid the courts.
"Kids are going to make stupid mistakes. That's what kids do. We want them to understand that what they are doing is wrong and to change their behavior. You don't want to go around arresting every kid," Burton said.
Child Trends has found that while bullying is a pervasive, problematic issue, rates of bullying haven't changed much since 2005, and traditional forms of bullying remain more prevalent than cyberbullying. The annual rate has remained at about 28 percent of youths ages 12 to 18.
However, Child Trends did find that the lasting effects of bullying on everyone involved can be serious. They are all at increased risk for depression, anxiety, poor school performance, and drug and alcohol use. Even passive bystanders, those who don't take a side, can implicitly encourage bullies through their inaction.
The children most at risk for negative outcomes are those who bully and are themselves bullied. They are more than six times more likely than children unaffected by bullying to develop a mental or other serious illness as an adult, according to Child Trends.
Good resources on how to prevent and understand bullying include "Five Things to Know about Bullying" and "Five Things to Know about Kids who Bully," which can both be found at childtrends.org.
Most of all, let your child know you will help guide and protect them through difficult situations. It takes courage to ask for help and to face mistakes. With either scenario, help your child to be brave enough to do the right thing.
Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist.