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Q&A: What is bullying? What are the signs? How do you help?


I recently spoke with Steve Hahn, the director of the Anti-Bullying Collaboration, to talk about about bullying and what exactly qualifies as bullying. Many people may not really know or are even sometimes afraid to ask. For the parents I've spoken with recently, concerns range from not knowing how to help to wondering what to do if you think your child is the bully. Here's what Hahn had to say:

Neile: There seems to be so much confusion on bullying. What do you define as bullying?

Steve: I think there is a danger of allowing "confusion" to set in to such a degree that polarizes the issue altogether. So everything is considered bullying (as opposed to conflict, fighting or other forms of violence) or bullying behavior is totally dismissed. We don't have bullying here or these kids and parents don't know what they are talking about. This is a dangerous notion.

  • Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior(s) that involves observed or perceived power imbalances and is repeated multiple times or is highly like to be repeated.
  • Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeting youth including physical, psychological, social or educational harm.
  • The imbalance of power is an attempt by the perpetrator to exert control over the targeted youths behavior or limit their ability to respond or stop the aggression.

As you can see, the definition of bullying is complex. But the complexity has emerged out of a great need to help find answers for this type of harmful behavior. I also define bullying using a mental health lens in this way: Bullying happens when kids abuse other kids.

Neile: What should a parent do if they suspect their child is being bullied?

Steve: First and foremost, parents need to listen to their children. If your child confides in you that they are being harmed by another kid or group of kids, believe them, ask questions, find out who is involved and by-all-means do not blame them for what is happening.

Remember, bullying is about others using their power in abusive ways to harm a person where an imbalance of power exists. Maybe your child is silent about such things but perhaps you notice your child losing interest in school or avoiding socializing with his peers or stops doing things he enjoys. This might be a sign your child is experiencing a stressful situation like bullying or perhaps struggling in other areas of life. The good news is that parents can be there for their children to help guide them through life's challenges successfully.

The older a kid gets the less likely they might be to come to a parent or teacher with a report of being bullied. Being bullied is an embarrassing and often shameful occurrence that some kids won't want to bring more attention to. So parents need to stay in-tune with their child's life especially as he or she gets older, "checking-in" often about what's going on in their world. Have the conversation about how their peers are getting along and if people are treating others fairly and with respect or not.

Neile: What should a parent do if they suspect their child is being a bully?

Steve: Parents should consider recognizing and managing emotions, positive decision-making and demonstrating pro-social behavior as basic norms and expectations for home and public life. Teaching a child these skills and modeling them will help your child be successful in may areas of life including home, school, workplace and beyond. They also go a long way to prevent bullying behaviors if a child chooses to practice them.

Apart from this, it's important to talk with your child about specific behaviors that have caught your attention if you suspect they are bullying others. Ask them about what emotions they are experiencing when they've behaved in specific ways and why they chose to act as they did. Be on the lookout for statements of anger, frustration, stress, feeling bad or even feelings of power, control or dominance over the situation or person involved.

You can also ask about how often they behave that way and if it's typically the same situation or person involved. Use empathy as a lens to guide your child to understand the perspective of the situation or person involved. Also, encourage your child to take responsibility for his actions and apologize to the appropriate individuals or people with a commitment to treat that person with dignity and respect. It is possible!

Neile: What’s the most important thing to remember as a parent when trying to help?

Steve: Your children need you. Some kids might try dealing with the situation on their own by ignoring it or trying to problem solve to get bullying to stop, which is good. However, we must remember that bullying is about an imbalance of power where the perpetrator attempts to limit the target's ability to respond or make it stop.

So when your child comes to you or any adult, they are reaching out to you to help them solve a problem that they cannot solve on their own. Listen to them, believe them and advocate for them with the appropriate people at their school, youth serving agency, church, etc.

Remain calm. Seek solutions. Provide a safe place for them physically and emotionally.

Click here for more information and resources to combat bullying.

#BullyingIsNotOK is a campaign to fight bullying in Green Country. In partnership with Tulsa's Anti-Bullying Collaboration and Route 66 Chevrolet and Nissan, KTUL is raising awareness in our community about the importance of bullying prevention.

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