October is National Bullying Prevention month. Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
Both in 2014 and 2015, bullying ranked #2 as a leading health concern adults have for children, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. This concern is for good reason as research shows that youth who bully, are bullied, and witness bullying are all at risk for health problems. Exposure to bullying can affect mental and physical health with an impact lasting well into adulthood.
The largest group of children exposed to bullying are the witnesses, sometimes referred to as bystanders. On the surface, bullying may not seem like a relevant issue for bystanders because they aren’t directly involved.
But what if parents knew:
- Every day, their child went to school afraid of becoming the next target
- Their child was afraid to be friends with someone, or in a certain group, for fear of becoming a target
- Their child worried about their social status because it could be impacted at the whim of someone more popular
- Their child watched someone else’s life being ruined by bullying and now felt anxious, sad or hopeless
- Their child felt the threat of what would happen if they told an adult was too powerful to overcome
- Their child saw another child become a target after trying to intervene
- Their child couldn’t concentrate in school secondary to anxiety about this issue
- Their child started siding with someone bullying out of fear
- Their child’s change of interests or extra curricular activities occurred to avoid standing out
- Their child dreaded social situations because of what could happen, but was also afraid of being excluded
- Their child’s self esteem was being negatively affected from being afraid to intervene
- No one was talking about feeling this way and what to do about it
What if this is the reality for millions of youth?
Every day, children are going to school or online and witnessing bullying. They are also being told to stand up, that they can stop this behavior, but what if they are terrified? What if they don’t trust that adults will do anything? And what about the millions of parents who have no idea their child feels this way or attends a school where bullying is happening?
If there is power in numbers, then the parents of witnesses have tremendous power. However, first parents must realize that this is an issue that indirectly, insidiously, and negatively impacts their child, like second-hand smoke.
Fueled with this knowledge, parents can immediately begin to have an impact by talking to their children about bullying and asking about their experiences. They can talk about what to do in certain situations and who they can turn to for help. They can role model what it means to be an upstander (someone who is willing to stand up and take action in defense of others) by talking to other parents and school personnel, and understanding how they can help their school address this issue. Do funds need to be secured to implement an evidenced-based bullying prevention program? Does the school board need to know that parents see this as a priority?
To decrease bullying is going to take a societal effort that cannot be left to the parents of children who’ve been bullied or bullying survivors themselves. Parents of a witness may one day become parents of a targeted child or one who is bullying; it’s too big a gamble to leave to chance.
The parental instinct to protect one’s children is a powerful one. There is a long list of things we do to prevent bad outcomes, even before a child is born. Preventing bullying in schools should be one of them.
– Marlene Seltzer, MD, Director, The NoBLE (No Bullying Live Empowered) Program, Beaumont Children’s Hospital