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Protecting Teens from Teenage Bullying

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Some youth find themselves the targets of repeated acts of violence and abuse, and while they do not want to resort to violence themselves, they also do not know how to stop this abuse from their peers. These youth are victims of bullying. Nearly 20% of youth report being targets of bullying in the past year (Eaton, Kann, Kinchen, et al., 2010).

Bullying is the repeated abuse, hostility, aggression, manipulation, or violence between two youth where one youth possesses greater power than the other. This power differential can include physical power (physical skills and strength), social power (popularity, social influence), financial power, intellectual power, or any difference in which the bully feels superior to the victim. The power differential enables bullies to successfully intimidate their victims. Bullying can include physical violence such as punching, hitting, or forcibly taking something that belongs to the victim. Bullying may include emotional abuse such as teasing, taunting, humiliating, threatening, or belittling peers. Social aggression, hostility, and manipulation are also powerful bullying tools. For instance, bullies can spread false rumors about their victims, isolate their victims from other friends or peers, or otherwise embarrass a youth. Both guys and girls can be the victims and perpetrators of all forms of bullying, but guys tend to use physical tactics, while female bullies tend to rely on social and emotional bullying tactics.

The Internet, mobile phones, and computers have expanded the number and type of bullying tools and tactics. Parents should not underestimate the harm that is caused by vicious text messages, or embarrassing photos that rapidly circulate among peers via mobile phones. These technological tools enable bullies to conduct their abuse without ever having face-to-face contact with their target. Furthermore, some sophisticated bullies with advanced computer skills can perform these hostile acts without detection.

At one time, parents and teachers often ignored bullying believing it to be relatively harmless act. However, research has made it exquisitely clear that bullying has lasting negative effects for both the bully and the victim. Therefore, all bullying needs to be taken seriously as youth who are the targeted victims, and the bully, are at much greater risk for emotional and behavioral problems. Symptoms of bullying can mimic symptoms of dating violence or behavioral health concerns. If parents are concerned that their child is experiencing bullying, they should talk to their child about this concern in a way that will make the youth feel safe and understood.

Depending on the severity of the bullying, parents may want to handle it in several different ways. If the bullying occurs during school hours (including extracurricular activities after school), parents should go to the school administration and express their concerns. Parents should insist the situation be handled in a way that the bully will be held fully accountable for their actions and the bullied child will be protected further abuse. The school should never suggest mediation between the bully and victim because whenever there is a power differential (as is the case with bullying) mediation is not only ineffective, but it can actually lead to further victimization. If the school suggests mediation, parents should resist. If the bullying occurs without any school involvement (cyber bullying outside school hours, or neighborhood bullying), the victim's parents may decide to talk to the bully's parents, express their concerns, and collaboratively form a plan to monitor their children's' interactions to maintain safety. However, some bullies have learned to disregard others by what they observe in their own home and so the bully's parents may not be open to such a discussion and may see nothing wrong with their child's behavior.

If the bullying begins to affect a child's overall functioning, parents will want to contact a child therapist or counselor to help the child cope with the experience and to help the child regain a sense of safety. If the bullying is extremely intense or if the school administration isn't making appropriate attempts to resolve the situation, parents may wish to consider filing for a protective court order, or even pressing charges against the violent bully. However, these steps must be carefully considered to avoid further victimization of the child. Parents may also wish to consider enrolling their child in a different school.