The “captain of the school army” had Dylan Edwards in his sights. He ordered his “soldiers” to chase Dylan, who has a platelet disorder. When Dylan came home with bruises and scrapes, his mother, Jody, chalked them up to lack of coordination, a symptom of his sensory processing disorder. But the second-grader hadn’t slipped or fallen. He was attacked by a platoon of pint-sized bullies during recess at his elementary school in Columbiana, Ohio.
Approximately one-fifth of all students have been bullied sometime during their school years, according to a 2010 report by the Cyberbullying Research Center. Some have experienced physical acts of violence, others the pain of verbal abuse or social isolation from “mean girl” cliques. Still others have received death threats from cyberbullies who terrorize their victims electronically.
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Although having a bleeding or clotting disorder can make a child a target, when it comes to bullying and mean girls, experts say anyone can be fair game. But families don’t have to live in fear. There are many tools children, parents and school systems can use to combat bullies.
Bullying Targets and Tactics
The Biblical story of David and Goliath graphically portrays the three main traits of a bully: an antagonist who is typically larger or stronger than the victim, acts aggressively to cause harm, and deliberately and repeatedly pursues an individual
The act of bullying is a power play. The goal is to dominate someone using intimidation or manipulation to gain control. Bullies tend to pick on others who are smaller, weaker or quieter. They target people who are less popular, have fewer friends, look anxious or are depressed. (See sidebar “Bullying Signs.”)
Bullies choose victims who will not report it. It took months for Dylan to tell his parents he was being bullied. “He’s fiercely independent,” says Jody, 41, a middle school instructional tutor. “There was some embarrassment that he couldn’t handle it.”
Bullies also target kids who won’t retaliate. “My son’s the type of person that if you say anything or do anything to him, he will forgive you the next day,” says Elitania Tecuanhuey, 31, of Gustavo, 11, who has moderate hemophilia A. The single mother, currently unemployed, lives in Aurora, Illinois, and also has a 4-year-old daughter. Gustavo, a rising sixth-grader, has been kicked and tripped by bullies since second grade. “Every day I have to check him from head to toe just to make sure there is no bruise on him.”
Bullies have some common traits: They get angry quickly and are easily frustrated, have a condescending or superior attitude, and blame others for their faults. Some do it because they have low self-esteem. Putting others down builds them up. Many come from dysfunctional families, where physical violence is the norm. Bullies have often been bullied at home.
Other bullies are arrogant, with a heightened sense of self-importance. When Dylan was in middle school, a boy whose mother told him he was the smartest child in the district, bullied Dylan academically. When the students graded each other’s papers in math class, the boy would intentionally mark correct answers wrong. For a team project in another class, he told Dylan, “If you do it, what’s the best we could hope for, a C? If I do it, we’ll get a 100%.”
Mean Girls’ Methods
“Mean girls” practice another form of bullying. The term, from a 2004 movie starring Lindsay Lohan, describes relational, or nonphysical, aggression. The perpetrators’ goal is to damage a girl’s self-esteem, social standing or friendships by ignoring her, excluding her or using rumors, lies and gossip to ruin her reputation. It usually peaks in middle school, but can begin as early as preschool. This type of behavior can also occur in boys.
Aggressive behavior is hard-wired into our systems as a protective mechanism. It’s when and how we use it that counts. “The girls I worry about are those who, no matter what setting they’re in, are on the attack—at school in a classroom, at swim team practice, at home,” says Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, GNP, professor of medicine and humanities, College of Medicine, Pennsylvania State University in State College. She is the author of several books, including Mean Girls Grown Up (Wiley, 2005).
Experts disagree on whether the ringleaders are jealous and insecure, or popular and snobbish. “Both aggressors and victims have a lot of social anxiety,” Dellasega says. In a social setting, they use opposite approaches. “One person chooses to launch the pre-emptive strike; the other wants to shrink into the background and not be seen.”
The girls who are “different” in positive and negative ways often get picked on, says Dellasega. Examples include a student who is heavier or more developed than her peers, or who has freckles, braces or red hair. Having a bleeding disorder with visible symptoms, like bruising, nosebleeds or leaking because of heavy periods, can be stigmatizing. Further, most students lack exposure to peers with bleeding disorders. “They could attach all kinds of negative connotations,” Dellasega says.
Bullying not only happens in person, but also in cyberspace. Sending nastygrams through e-mail, texting or on popular social media sites, such as Facebook or Formspring, adds a powerful weapon to the bully’s armory. It also multiplies the audience exponentially. “Because everybody knows about it when it’s posted—everybody in the school, everybody on the dance team—that makes it all the worse,” Dellasega says.
Cyberbullies often hide their identities, terrorizing their victims anonymously. “I received death threats on IM (instant messaging) from a girl who had left my school, but used one of her guy friends to contact me,” says Sami Jankins, 23, of New Berlin, Wisconsin. She didn’t know who the boy was. “That was very scary for me. I was only 12 at the time.” Jankins has antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, a clotting condition. She is the founder and president of C.H.O.I.R. Stars, a nonprofit arts program for teens and young adults with chronic health problems. (See “Cyberbullies” sidebar in “Web of Friends,” HemAware January/February 2009, p. 40.)
Loyal friends can defuse bullying episodes. Often they are more comfortable confronting the aggressor. Friends can also provide emotional support. “It’s the few close friends who make the difference. They help you get through it,” Jankins says.
Because bullies crave an audience, bystanders play a pivotal role in exacerbating or ending a bullying incident. “They have the most power to walk away or tell the aggressor, ‘Knock it off. You’re going too far here,’” says Dellasega.
Tips for Parents and Children
Parents’ responses to their child being bullied may need rethinking. Telling a child who is being bullied to ignore it, walk away or strike back can be counterproductive. “Those kinds of things put more pressure on the child. If he or she can’t do that successfully, then the child has failed again,” Dellasega says. Parents need to remember that shame and guilt are common reactions to being bullied. Depression and, in rare cases, suicide have resulted from relentless bullying.
In addition, bullies perceive some actions as signs of weakness, not strength. “When my son walks away or ignores it and the boy doesn’t accomplish what he wanted, it ends up becoming a whole group that bullies him,” Tecuanhuey says.
Listening should be a parental priority. “If you have an adult you trust and you know is going to advocate for you, then it does help,” Dellasega says. Let your child own his feelings, Edwards says. “Don’t make him feel less than a man or guilty for being the victim of bullies.”
Once the child has opened up, then you can work together to create a plan. One strategy is for kids to tell an authority figure. “I was never afraid to report things,” says Jankins. But she knew students who were. “They didn’t want to say somebody was being mean to them for fear of retaliation. But problems can never resolve if people keep quiet.” (See sidebar “Strategies for Standing Up to Bullies.”)
However, adults are not always available. Many bullying incidents happen during recess, in the hallway or after school. Dylan, now 16, has had success with some other strategies. “Sometimes he has to outsmart them at their own game,” Edwards says. “If he can’t out-and-out avoid them, at least he doesn’t have to let them see how much it’s getting to him.” Another helpful tactic is to encourage your child’s friendships outside of school. “Boy Scouts helped because we did make that a place where he could have good interactions with other kids,” Edwards says.
Parents should keep a record of the bullying incidents. They should also work with the school to help solve the problem.
Most states have anti-bullying policies within each school district. Your school’s policy should state what kinds of behaviors constitute bullying, what the consequences are, and how incidents will be reported and investigated.
Most experts advise parents to work their way up the chain of command. Start with your child’s teacher, then progress to the principal and, finally, the superintendent if your concerns are not addressed. For optimal results, parents need good advocacy skills. “Come in with a list of grievances and say, ‘Here’s what my situation is,’ but don’t argue with emotion,” says Don Molter, career counselor at the Indiana Hemophilia & Thrombosis Center in Indianapolis.
Having a united front helps in dealing with school staff. “Come together as a couple, even if you’re divorced,” Molter says. But don’t invite your child to the initial meeting. “Bring him in later, when they’ve got some closure, some semblance of order.”
The guidance counselor may be your most effective advocate. “Ours was probably better trained on bullying than most of the teachers,” Edwards says. The guidance counselor met with the teachers, told them about Dylan’s bullying incidents and what to look for. Teachers then went from being oblivious to being on the alert, says Edwards. “The more physical stuff started to diminish after the guidance counselor got involved.”
If the school does not protect a student who has been assaulted or is threatened with physical harm or if the incidents occur outside of school, you may have to contact local law enforcement officers or an attorney. Jankins’ parents called the police after their daughter received death threats. “There were charges filed against the boy,” she says.
School is the place students grow academically and socially. Bullying has one benefit—it can accelerate social development. Figuring out the modus operandi of bullies can help victims gain insight and prevent self-blame. “The people who were bullying had major issues themselves,” says Jankins. “Instead of dealing with them, they took it out on other people.”
Children can learn to not only bear up under bullies, but to face their giants and defeat them. “All of us have to deal with conflict and negativity,” Dellasega says. “If you can figure this out as a young person, then you have a life skill that will stay with you into adulthood.”
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