Andrew was a six-foot nine-inch freshman entering North High School. Even though he loved basketball and was fairly athletic, he hadn’t filled out as yet and was extremely insecure about his slender physical appearance. Even on hot afternoons, he refused to wear shorts or go shirtless when the guys would play basketball “shirts against skins.”
Andrew was a hard worker both in academics and on the basketball court. As a freshman, he made the junior varsity squad. One of the upperclassmen on the varsity team named Will latched onto Andrew and never missed an opportunity to call him “skinny” or “giraffe.” On the court or in the school hallways, Will would make fun of Andrew and try his best to embarrass him.
On rare occasions, the coaches would have the junior varsity starters scrimmage with the varsity squad. Andrew and Will both played the forward position. As soon as Andrew stepped onto the same court as Will, he became totally unfocused. As a result he missed passes, tripped over his own feet, and couldn’t even seem to make a simple two-foot bank shot. Will didn’t hesitate to spread the news. Andrew lost all confidence and concentration when he had to scrimmage with Will.
It was normal for other classmates, girls and boys of different classes, to hang out in the gym and watch the basketball teams practice. On Tuesday, Will felt the need for some attention. The teams were doing the usual layup drill to begin practice, varsity on one end and J.V. on the other. Will broke rank, ran up behind Andrew, and pulled his pants down to his ankles in front of everyone. Andrew was humiliated, and most of his blood seemed to rush straight to his face. He stood on the court in his underwear, a bit frozen for a couple of seconds before he quickly bent over to pull up his pants. All Andrew could think about the entire practice was When will this be over?
A few weeks later, after yet another altercation with Will in the hallways, Andrew decided to strategically place a broken chair in Marybeth’s place in science class. The science teacher was a new, cool teacher, and for that reason the class was filled to capacity. Marybeth’s desk was near the front of the class. Marybeth was significantly overweight. When she came in late and sat down, she flattened the broken chair to the ground and bounced up again as the entire class laughed. Marybeth was completely devastated. She hastily gathered her belongings, ran out of the class crying, and hid herself in the girls’ bathroom. How could Andrew humiliate someone when he knew what it was like to be bullied and humiliated?
This story illustrates the ripple effect of bullying. From Will to Andrew and then Andrew to Marybeth, this secret tsunami destroys one life after another from the inside out.
Have you ever asked yourself, why are people mean to each other? Why do we as humans hurt one another? There are many reasons. For meanness to be considered bullying, it needs to have at least these three elements:
- It’s characterized by name-calling, physical (including sexual) harm, rumors, stealing, breaking things, humiliating, or intentionally isolating or rejecting someone.
- It is repeated.
- A power differential develops between the bully and the victim.
It’s probably not news to you that boys are more likely to be physically or verbally bullied. Girls are more likely to be the target of social or psychological bullying, which is less direct and more likely to go unnoticed for a long time. Girls are more frequently bullied than boys, and sadly, students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their peers.
The school setting, public or private, is where most bullying takes place. Thirty-seven percent of teens report being bullied while at school. Four of ten middle schools admit bullying is an issue on their campus. In-person bullying includes things such as
- being made fun of,
- having rumors or gossip spread about you,
- being physically assaulted in some way,
- being threatened,
- being purposefully excluded,
- being coerced into doing something you didn’t want to do,
- having your personal property/belongings damaged or destroyed.
If the bullying took place only on the school grounds, there’d be a place your kids could get away from it all. But with online bullying, children can be bullied 24/7 through social media and texting. One in three teens says they’ve experienced cyberthreats. Once again, girls are more prone to be cyberbullied than boys.
The most common types of cyberbullying are
- sending mean messages by email or text, intended to hurt the recipient,
- spreading rumors through social media or web pages about a person,
- pretending to be someone else online to hurt the recipient,
- stealing a person’s account information to send damaging messages to others, pretending to be them,
- sexting and/or sending sexually suggestive pictures or messages about another person,
- sending embarrassing/unflattering pictures of another person by phone or internet.
Online bullies, unfortunately, can sometimes create devastating issues anonymously and often with little fear of being discovered or punished. Their harassing comments may even include recommendations that the recipient harm or kill themselves. Kids who are the targets of bullying have an increased likelihood of developing anxiety, social anxiety, depression, psychotic experiences, substance abuse, headaches, stomachaches, tiredness, dizziness, sleeping issues, and back pain. Add all this together and you can see why bullied teens are more likely to harm themselves.
Research also confirms that permissive parenting—where children get to do pretty much whatever they want—can develop a bully just as much as harsh, strict parenting. Again, the most effective parenting style is one that balances having relationship (nurture) with having boundaries and limits (structure). There’s a temptation for us as parents to want to be the cool parent, to be liked rather than to be the parent, but in the process we can create a teen who feels too powerful for her own good. We need to be sure our kids learn how to respond respectfully to authority, accept the word no, and understand how to navigate social give-and-take.
It may not surprise you that many bullies are simply imitating their parents, with a few minor variations. As a parent, are you harsh toward your kids? Have you ever tried to press (insert the word bully) the staff at your children’s school to get what you want for your child? Sometimes, kids are simply mirroring what’s going on at home. They have been victims of bullying and now want to have power somewhere, just as Andrew did. Once they find someone who is weaker, they strike. Interestingly, while the bullied child becomes increasingly depressed, the bullying child also has high levels of depression from various factors such as genetics, family environment, and life experiences. This Pew Research Center report shows that a majority of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying.
Signs that might indicate your child is the victim of bullying or cyberbullying include:
- marked changes in patterns of daily activities, such as overeating or eating less than normal,
- plummeting grades, an unwillingness to attend school, or complaints of being sick in order to avoid school,
- changes in sleep patterns,
- use of drugs and alcohol.
If you see these signs, talk with your child. One way to bring up a difficult topic is to depersonalize it. For example, you might mention that other people have also encountered bullying. You can first talk about the problem in generic terms, and then move to a more personal question in this way: “I’ve heard a lot of people talking about bullying lately. What does that mean to you? Have you ever felt bullied by someone? On social media, do you see any of your friends being picked on? If so, how did you respond?”
You can safeguard your child from being bullied or catch the problem early on by doing several things:
Be open. Check in often so you can be better able to spot signs of bullying early on. Some of the issues that lead to bullying could be embarrassing or involve wrongdoing. Don’t be afraid to bring up concerns. Conflict can be helpful to the growth of your parent-child relationship. Talk to your child about how bullying has been around since the beginning of history. It’s not unique to this generation; it’s a humanity issue that even Jesus faced.
Build confidence. Encourage your child’s strengths and passions. Taking part in activities he loves or excels in will help him develop confidence, which can ward off the attention of bullies.
Set boundaries. Set guidelines for technology use. We’ll talk about technology specifically in part four.
Make your child accountable. Let your child know that part of your job as a responsible, loving parent is to be aware of her emails, texts, and social media postings. You want to see that your child is being treated well, treating others well, and being a good decision-maker.
Eat dinner together. Consistent family dinners reduce issues with cyberbullying. Family dinners increase family communication, openness in the family, and guidance from parents.
The effects of bullying and cyberbullying can be dramatic. They demolish self-esteem and lead to depression and anxiety that can last into adulthood. Many kids silently question themselves, their sense of belonging, worth, and competence, all because of the powerfully distorting effects of bullying. Neurobiological research confirms that social pain is equal to the physical pain of being punched. Bullying is like being repeatedly punched. You can only take so much. Many kids end up wrestling with what’s called learned helplessness, which means they expect bad things to happen to them and believe they can’t do anything about it. Kids with learned helplessness begin to filter life through a very negative and self-defeating lens. They see the issue as never-ending. In the most tragic cases, teens and preteens may feel driven to self-harm or suicide. If your teen is being bullied, he needs help immediately.
To be proactive, teach your children strategies and skills for dealing with bullying. Here are a few:
Disengage from a bully. Give your kids phrases they can use in a bullying incident. They could use humor to defuse a tense situation, or use straightforward language, such as “That’s enough!” Tell them to walk away or avoid an altercation if possible.
Don’t fight back. While self-defense training is helpful, advising your children to answer violence with violence isn’t recommended. Physical aggression can escalate to a point where a child’s safety—or even life— may be seriously threatened. Likewise, schools that have a zero-tolerance policy for violence may impose punishments on your child, even if he’s not the instigator of the fight.
Build social and emotional skills. Research in Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy and Practice reports that building social and emotional skills and learning coping skills are effective ways adults can help children deal with the issue of bullying.1
Know where to go. Help your child know where she can go at school if she ever feels threatened. Choose a specific location or a person such as a school counselor, a trusted teacher, or administrator.
Encourage openness. Encourage your child to talk with you or another adult when he feels intimidated or afraid, so he can get help and perspective on the other person’s behavior to end the bullying. In situations where he feels emotionally trapped in feelings of fear, talking can sometimes help him break out of his loop of fearful emotions.
If your child is being bullied, you might be tempted to give free rein to your own strong emotions, especially in a meeting with school officials. Resist the urge. Yelling or reacting explosively may embarrass your child and cause her to not tell you about future episodes. Calm, measured action is more likely to lead her to want to tell you more. Work on developing a plan of action with the school. Be part of the solution.
Children who bully or have been bullied have an increased likelihood of developing a psychiatric disorder. It’s helpful to consult a licensed counselor who works with children.
How Disabilities Relate to Bullying and Suicide
Brittany grew up in a moderate-sized community that supported two high schools, one on each side of town and aptly named East High School and West High School. Brittany attended West. During her junior year, East High experienced a mass shooting.
The district closed East’s campus for the remainder of the academic year and relocated all the students to West. One afternoon, just weeks after the tragedy, Brittany went home in tears.
“Mom, these two jocks from East were mocking this boy today, and I didn’t know what to do,” Brittany explained to her mom. “Hunter’s in a wheelchair, and he can’t speak for himself. It was awful!”
Hunter was a West student who was intellectually challenged, but his classmates had grown up with him and saw him as one of the group. They accepted him as he was.
“I should have defended him, Mom, but I was afraid of those bullies,” she said.
Brittany’s mom joined her the following day as she reported the incident to the administrators. Fortunately, the administration took immediate action and worked with the counseling staff to address the issue between the athletes and Hunter.
Hunter’s story is not an isolated one. Some disabilities, like Hunter’s, are obvious to their peers while many types of disabilities are not. The National Center for Education Statistics says approximately 13 percent of kids (roughly one in a group of seven or eight) who attend public school have a disability that affects their academic performance, making them eligible for special education services.2 Add to this the students who have disabilities that don’t affect their academic performance as well as those who attend private schools, and the actual number of students with disabilities of any kind is higher.
Most kids tend to respond more positively to peers who appear normal and are popular. Despite our attempts to instill empathy and compassion in our children, kids tend to make fun of, bully, and isolate kids who have any sort of perceived abnormality. This means that if you have a child with special needs or a disability that identifies him as “abnormal” by his peers, he’s at a higher risk of being teased and bullied. (See our article What to Do When Your Child With Disabilities is Bullied.)
Most kids experience unkind words and isolation from peers at one time or another. But harsh words, bullying, and isolation tend to be regular and recurring themes for kids with special needs or learning disabilities. This can lead your child to feel as if she’ll never fit in anywhere . . . ever.
Why is this a concern? The sting of being isolated or rejected can be devastating. One of the contributing factors to suicidal thoughts and actions among young people is the feeling and perception of not fitting in with their peers. Teens strive to figure out where they belong within their peer group. While this is a part of their normal development as an adolescent, it’s not always an easy stage to navigate.
For many teens, this pain is short-lived because their weakness is obvious only in specific situations that can be fixed by simply avoiding situations altogether or finding an alternate peer group that values and appreciates their strengths. For example, if your son is tone deaf but highly intelligent, he can avoid choir and sign up for the debate club, where his intellect can be on full display.
As a parent, be careful not to place a high value on performance and awards, even though both of these are highly sought after by most teens. When a special need or disability makes it difficult for your child to perform well and be recognized for his gifts and talents, it can leave him with no place to belong. If he can’t find a way for his strengths to shine and compensate for his disability, he can become overtaken with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness; both of which are contributors to suicidal thinking.
If you have a child with special needs or a disability, help him find places where he feels valued, appreciated, and can fit in. In this article, Tyler Sexton writes about finding hope in raising a child with disabilities.
Get It Diagnosed
If you suspect your child may have a disability, or if others suspect something’s amiss with your child, get her evaluated as early as possible. Many times the warning signs are passed over as just a phase she’s in, or a she’ll-grow-out-of-it mentality. There’s nothing more frustrating to your child with a legitimate disability than being told by teachers, coaches, and most of all, you, her parent, that she just needs to try harder.
Talk to your primary care physician, your child’s teacher, or the school counselor to determine the best way to assess your child. Getting an accurate and early diagnosis of a learning disability or special need is critical to your child’s well-being.
Stress Strengths and Acceptance
One of the most basic social needs for all human beings is the need for healthy connection to family—namely parents, grandparents, siblings, and extended family members. Your child needs to know that despite what happens out there, he can return to family who genuinely loves and cares about him. Because of his special needs or disability, he may need more attention to counteract the messages of disapproval he may get at school, church, or in peer groups. As parents and family members, you can communicate acceptance and love by doing the following:
Identify your child’s strengths and abilities and point those out to family members. While we tend to look for intellectual special gifts, and athletic, musical, and other performance-related talents, those are just a few of the many God-given gifts that may be a part of your child’s DNA. Take time to notice and acknowledge your son or daughter for character traits such as patience, kindness, goodness, and perseverance. Be intentional about planning activities that allow your child to shine.
Teach your child to be assertive enough to let people know how she can contribute to a situation or event. Through your child, God can show others that a disability doesn’t have to interfere with having a rich, full life that contributes generously to the lives of others.
Talk with your children about the importance of accepting all people. Discuss and memorize Romans 15:7 (NASB): “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” Encourage them to look for opportunities in their daily life to practice truly accepting others.
Talk about the beauty of God’s creation as seen in mankind. Discuss and memorize Psalm 139:14: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”
If You Know of a Child
When you’re throwing a party or planning an event, be thoughtful about not planning too many activities that would exclude kids with special needs or disabilities. Plan a mixture of events, some that require physical agility and others that don’t. Also—especially at the middle and high school levels—plan events that don’t require kids to pair up as couples. Instead, plan activities that allow kids to participate as small groups.
Provide safe opportunities for kids you know with disabilities to showcase their abilities in service to others, as this will begin to build important relationships with their peers.
Olivia was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as a child. Although she had to learn to manage her autism, she developed into a natural and gifted artist. But as she moved into high school, she struggled socially.
Knowing Olivia had an artistic bent, her youth leader asked her to design and make the table centerpieces for a youth-group formal dinner. The centerpieces looked like they were made by a professional florist. Olivia received a lot of recognition from adults and her peers alike.
That single opportunity allowed Olivia’s artistic strengths to shine in a safe and non-awkward way. Peers and church members began including her in their discussions when planning other similar events. Although her social awkwardness didn’t disappear, those who finally got to know her for who she truly was simply put the awkwardness aside. Olivia became a part of the in-crowd. That one intentional act by a sensitive youth leader led to other opportunities for Olivia to connect with her peers.
Don’t underestimate the importance of communicating love, acceptance, and belonging to a young person with a special need or disability. While disapproval and isolation have been known to lead many of these kids to consider or attempt suicide, engagement with them that communicates they’re valuable and appreciated may truly save a life.
Talk About It
Ask questions. This list may help you start a discussion with your kids.
- Have you ever witnessed bullying or cyberbullying? If so, what did you see? What did you do?
- Who tends to bully? What do you think is going on in a bully’s mind? What is going on in the mind of someone being bullied?
- What’s being done about bullying in your school?
- What are some effective ways to step in when someone is being bullied? How would you want others to step in if or when someone is bullying you?
- If a person were bullied, what would it be like for people to step in and help?
- What are some easy ways to encourage others?
- Why do you think cyberbullying is common?
- How can we use technology in more positive ways?
- In a recent study, eight out of ten kids said they had gone out of their way to do something kind for another kid who was having a difficult time. What type of things could be done for you or others?
- What stops you from finding help for yourself or another person being bullied?
- What are some resources at your school for people who are being bullied? Who needs to know about the bullying to be able to help? What does it mean to be interdependent?
- How can we pray about bullying?
You’re beginning to hear a theme: talk about it with your kids.Whatever the “it” is, talking about it occasionally, frequently, in-depth, or in passing keeps you connected to your children, so find the time and the best way to do so.
- Start a family discussion about Christians and bullying. Open by saying that Christians throughout history have been bullied and persecuted, including Jesus. Discuss the various ways Christians have faced persecution (bullying) throughout history. Find out what their response was and why they responded that way. Have these Bible references ready to discuss as a family:
- Romans 12
- Ephesians 6:12
- Psalm 138:7
- Luke 6:27-28
- Matthew 5:44-45
- After you’ve done that, talk about how our culture sometimes deals with bullying as communicated through music, movies, and social media. Is revenge promoted?
- Ask your kids why they think the Bible teaches something very different.
- See if you can come up with a workable way to be “wise as a serpent” (strong, wise, pro-active) and still “innocent as a dove” (caring, gentle, and kind).