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Bullies on the Playground

Sat, 10/01/2005 - 6:00am
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5 months ago
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Stopping it and Helping Children

Mia Miseria, a spinster aunt, lived on a sweet spot of country land. Every day she would sit on her porch, read a good book and sip her tea. Her life would have been perfect had she not had to endure the torment of those Bully Boys. Every day after school, they would swagger up to her road, taunting her as they strutted. They would then race into her yard, climb her beautiful peach trees and destroy her fruit by taking one bite out of each peach and then throwing it at her chickens. Day after day, she cowered inside her house, powerless against them.

One morning, a mysterious traveler comes to visit Tia Miseria and upon leaving, gives her magical powers. When the bullies storm her yard that afternoon, she utters some mystical words, and the bullies find themselves trapped in the tops of the peach trees that they climbed. There they sit, through rain, and cold and darkness, until the next morning when they beg Tia Miseria to let them down. It is only then when they are hungry, wet and miserable that they promise to change their mean ways and never bother her again.*

Children who have been terrorized on the playground by bullies have feelings of powerlessness that rival Tia Miseria’s. They cower near recreation buildings, hoping they won’t be hassled. They take long routes home from the playground to avoid walking through a bully’s “territory.” They tell their parents they are sick to avoid having to play outside where they will become a bully’s target. Unfortunately, for each of these children, there are no magic words to make these harassers disappear.  

The American Justice Department reports that a child is bullied on the playground every seven minutes and eight percent of American children miss at least one day of school per month for fear of a bully’s actions. To add to their feelings of non-protection, the statistics conclude that in 85 percent of the cases, there is no adult intervention, and in the 11 percent of times the child is helped, the aid comes from another youngster.

College professors who train child specialists teach that children who are perceived by their peers as “different” become the major targets. These differences may be physical, such as obesity or wearing glasses or braces, or they may be intellectual, such as having the high intelligence or a learning disability.  

Children with emotional problems are also prime targets, particularly those who appear “geeky” or “nerdy” or who do not socialize well. Lastly, children who dress according to their ethnic or religious beliefs often catch the attention of bullies.

“Bullies look for someone they can have power over,” education professors teach, “so they pick on kids who do not have the skills to defend themselves.”

Bullying takes many forms including:

  • Teasing or name-calling
  • Stealing, such as money, lunch, or a toy;
  • Holding or pinning the child down
  • Punching
  • Threatening
  • Gesturing

A child might be harassed by as few as one or by a group of bullies. These tough guys or girls look for times when a child is alone and when the likelihood of intervention by an adult or stronger peer is low. This sets the stage for the bullies to get the “pay off” they hope for – crying, whimpering, or escalating the encounter into a fight.

In past generations, parents and teachers would advise children to ignore the bully and the behavior. Recent research by psychologists and pediatricians, however, shows that children who confront their tormenters fare better in the long run.  

In both his video and book Bullies are a Pain in the Brain, ** Trevor Romain advises children:

“Ignoring bullies won’t make them go away, and if you can smell their breath, you’re too close!”

Romain, whose company Comical Sense, is committed to giving recommendations with humor, suggests that knowing the following Dos and Don’ts is one of the best defenses against bullies. He writes:  

  • Do stick up for yourself. When teased, say, “You can think what you want; I like myself just the way I am.”
  • Don’t gasp, gag, or clutch your throat, or fall to the ground.
  • Taunting a bully is like taunting a vicious dog.  
  • Do use your best judgment and follow your instincts if you are threatened.  If you have to give in to the bully to avoid getting hurt, do so; then go tell an adult.
  • Don’t drop to your knees and whine, ‘Take my lunch money!Take my backpack! Take anything you want! Just please don’t hurt me! Bullies love it when you beg for mercy.
  • Do find ways to avoid believing what the bully is saying. Cover your ears and whistle the National Anthem. Then back away.
  • Don’t break down in tears and believe what they are saying about you.
  • Do get away as fast as you can from bullies trying to pick fights.
  • Do learn self-defense to protect yourself and gain confidence.
  • Don’t encourage fighting by saying, ‘I can beat you up with one hand tied behind my back.’­­­­­­
  • Do stand in front of a mirror and rehearse what to say and do when you are tormented by a bully.
  • Don’t stand in front of the mirror and rehearse picking your nose.
  • Do look for ways to turn your bully into your friend.
  • Don’t become hurtful by turning into a bully yourself.

Dr. Linda Brannon is a professor of psychology at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and an authority on gender and society. She observes that there are significant behavioral differences between the ways that boys are bullied as compared to girls.

“When boys are taunted,” she says, “it’s usually more overt. On the playground, the bullies will begin calling out to him from a distance and will keep it up as they come closer. When they reach their victim, they are most likely to become physical, pulling on their victim’s clothing, pushing him or pinning him against a piece of playground equipment or the ground.

“Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to mock ‘their prey’ when they are in close proximity. While they sometimes become physical, they are more likely to do things that are covert, such as spreading rumors, using innuendo, or ostracizing their victim from play.”

Brannon also warns that a major misconception exists about bullies. “These are NOT children who have low self-esteem problems. On the contrary, research shows these are children who think highly of themselves, and their aggressive actions are ways they defend their developing sense of worth against perceived threats of ugliness, klutziness, and incompetence.”

Brannon concludes by supporting the American Justice Department findings indicating that bullying begins in elementary school and, in the form found on playgrounds, peaks around the middle school grades. As children mature, the behaviors cross gender lines and transform into sexual harassment, isolation, and inequality.  

“When these aggressive kids graduate from high school, their behavior is no longer tolerated by society. They are no longer ­­­­­­­­‘kids with problems; they are criminals.’

As parents and professionals teach children how to handle bullying, Romain’s idea of using peers as helpmates seems sound. One of his suggestions is that the targeted child has a group of peers who gather in a circle around him whenever the bully appears. He believes that the circle becomes protective since bullies prefer to direct their attention to children who are more isolated.  

He is also adamant that adults ask and listen to learn if their child is experiencing bully problems. If so, address this at once by teaching coping skills, talking with playground or school officials, and when appropriate, contacting the bully’s parents.  

“Don’t leave your child unprotected,” Romain emphasizes. If she has a long walk home from the playground, go and meet her. Don’t have her walk it alone.”

Coming out of school catastrophes where lives were lost is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. This program was originally created in Norway about 15 years ago after three children committed suicide as a direct result of being bullied. Its founder, Dan Olweus, has become the premier authority on decreasing this aggressive behavior.

Information for the United States Olweus program comes from the Institute of Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University in South Carolina. Psychologist Marlene Snyder, Ph.D., speaks about the program saying that it has three major components:

  • Address the behavior with the child who is bullying:
  • Address the incidents with the child who was bullied,
  • Have in place a comprehensive program within the institution that creates empathy and understanding.

In the wake of school shootings and ongoing reports of frequent bullying, the Olweus program has become popular with schools and other institutions, especially those with playgrounds. According to Dr. Snyder, the program is implemented over a two-year span, and everybody becomes involved. Adults agree to provide the supervision necessary to protect and discourage aggressive behavior. When incidents occur, they are addressed immediately.

“We realize that childhood is a time when children ‘try on’ different roles,” says Dr. Snyder. “Sometimes these roles have inappropriate behaviors. A child must be taught the difference between what is acceptable and what is not.  

“This is difficult,” she goes on, “because boundaries are not clear. For instance, a child can bully his peers one day and then be the victim of a bully the next.  

“Some children are even encouraged by their families to be aggressive, and they are surprised to find they are in trouble for targeting their peers.”

Dr. Snyder reports that the Olweus program helps these children by setting clear expectations for behavior and by dealing with problem behaviors right away.  

“Offending children are counseled as soon as possible,” Dr. Snyder says. “They are also given a consequence for their actions. They are told that they will be monitored and that there is an expectation that they will conform to the school rules.

“By setting this expectation and helping children to achieve it, they feel supported and encouraged. As a result, these children do not become marginalized and are accepted back into their peer group.”

To view the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, visit http://www.clemson.edu/olweus/  

Ken Pence, PhD., realizes that many institutions do not have the resources to implement designs such as the Olweus program.  

Dr. Pence is now an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, and formerly a captain with the Metro Nashville Police Department, Nashville, TN. Taking an interest in child violence, Dr. Pence and his colleagues constructed the School Assault Test. Funding was through a grant from the U. S. Department of Justice.

This brief assessment can be used by anyone who wishes to assess the potential for violence in a child. Additionally, the test offers ideas which, if implemented, may decrease the risk for the child in question. Log on to https://www.rateyourrisk.org.secure.moses.com/school.htm for more information.

This risk assessment, as does the Olweus program, points out the damage that domestic violence and inequality have on a child. “Bullying is a learned behavior which often has its beginnings at home,” states Dr. Pence. “One parent exerts power over the other, older siblings order younger ones to do their chores…”

Pence continues, “Practicing kindness is a much harder skill to learn because children today see bullying and hear sarcasm from their earliest days.   

“It’s everywhere in the media, and children whose parents protect them at home  quickly lose their naiveté when they play with friends.”

Pence advises adults to stay involved with their children. Here are a few of his suggestions:

Take your children to the playground and play with them instead of reading the newspaper.  

Attend your children’s sports events and get to know the coach and other parents and kids on the team. That gives you a heads-up as to who the bullies are.  

When your child has a bully problem, ask him to give you his ideas on how to solve it.  Brainstorm with him before offering your thoughts. If his suggestion makes sense, then practice the solution with your child, so he will feel secure.

Help your daughters learn self-assurance.  Practice equality — not subservience — at home. Girls who are confident about their abilities are less likely to be impacted by the innuendo and friendship manipulations of bullies.

If you have children whom you believe can be targeted for bullies, don’t expect them to fend for themselves. Talk with adults who supervise them in situations where they are likely to be vulnerable, and look for ways to use peer support to help them learn social skills and then be able to integrate into the social milieu. You can also visit these Web sites with them, and help them learn more about bullies:

Many bullying problems happen after school. Parents and professionals can come together to hold an after-school resource fair, which shows what child care programs are available to cut down on the emptiness latchkey children feel when they know they are going to be home alone.

Pence concludes by mentioning there are several American businesses which flex their employee’s hours so they can be home with their children before and after school. He notes that his former employer, Metro Nashville Government, is one of them.

“These companies deserve to be rewarded,” emphasizes Pence. “They encourage parents to be committed to their children. They empower them to be involved in their kid’s lives the way parents are meant to be. These are the companies that are making a difference for generations to come.”

* Tia Miseria is a Latino folktale.

** Bullies Are A Pain in the Brain and other books and videos by Trevor Romain are now available through Barnes and Noble bookstores.

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