Hateful Behavior is Becoming Epidemic, but Parents,
Teachers and Peers Hold the Keys to a Cure

by Todd Patkin

Every few months, it seems, there’s another headline about the death of a child or teen as the result of bullying. That’s terrifying, and it’s also unacceptable. To some extent we expect to hear about economic woes, political strife, and natural disasters. We don’t expect to hear about the premature (and preventable) deaths of our young people. And we shouldn’t have to. It’s past time for America to realize that bullying is “the” problem of our day, and for parents and educators to lead the revolution on stopping this dangerous behavior.
If you’re skeptical, consider the following statistics from bullyingstatistics.org:
Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims.
Every day, about 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.
Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their nonbullied peers to consider suicide.
Perhaps most concerning of all, a 2009 study indicated that every half hour, a child commits suicide because he has been bullied. And that trend is on the rise.

Yes, bullying is a big problem.

I know from personal experience just how devastating bullying can be. My tormenters verbally abused me, and they would also push me around and knock my books or drinks out of my hands. They caused me to often dread coming to school or attending social functions. My confidence and self-esteem took a huge hit. And looking back, I believe that the negative self-image bullying cultivated lasted well into my adult years and contributed to the anxiety and depression from which I suffered. There are definitive links between childhood bullying and adult depression. Being bullied can also lead to anger management problems and aggression in adulthood.
The importance of combating and preventing bullying should be obvious. By preventing a young person from being bullied, we may be freeing him from a lifetime of feeling inadequate and being haunted by horrible memories. We may even be saving a life.

So, why isn’t the current approach working?

Yes, bullying receives a lot of media attention, and as a result, schools and communities are providing more resources for bullied kids. They’re encouraging victims to reach out for help, and they’re also instituting zero-tolerance policies aimed at the bullies themselves. But too many victims are still slipping through the cracks. Why? We’re putting too much responsibility on the young people we’re trying to protect.
First of all, kids who are being bullied often lack the self-esteem and confidence to stand up for themselves and let adults know what’s happening. They also worry that turning a tormentor in will make them new targets, or intensify the former level of bullying.
I believe that many young people today feel just as powerless to speak up and “out” bullies – and also that repercussions for them could be worse than those he might have faced due to cyberbullying. In other words, today’s bullies aren’t forced to stop once the school bell rings – their vicious and hurtful behavior can continue 24/7 thanks to social media sites, texting, and emails.
How much longer are we going to let this problem go on? Are we going to continue to allow more kids to become victims because, like I was, they’re too scared to speak up? Not on my watch!

Here’s what our goal should be.

We need to spark a culture-wide revolution to make bullying uncool – in fact, unacceptable. There needs to be a palpable stigma attached to tormenting and belittling another person.
I compare the bullying problem to drunk driving. Once upon a time, getting behind the wheel after a few alcoholic beverages was fairly common and casual, and was not seen as “that big of a deal” Until recent time, bullying was seen simply as “a part of kids growing up.”
Similarly, bullies need to lose the “cool” image that comes with being at the top of the social pecking order. The public – adults and kids alike – needs to view bullying as something that brands you with a modern-day scarlet letter. Our current zero-tolerance policies are a good start, but we need to add another prong to our anti-bullying approach. In short, parents have to lead the way (along with other students) to say that we are no longer going to accept this behavior. It has to start in your house.

What can parents do to change things?

We as parents need to be more proactive in raising kids who are not bullies. If young people see bullying as something to avoid at all costs – something that they don’t want to participate in or allow to happen – we’ll be directly attacking the problem instead of treating the symptoms. The best news is, getting started is pretty simple.
First, have the bullying talk. Talk to your kids about bullying, just as you would have the drug talk or the drunk driving talk. Most parents don’t directly address this topic, perhaps because nobody ever thinks it’s their kids. As a result, many kids don’t have a full understanding of how serious bullying and its effects can be. It’s important to be specific in defining what bullying is (make sure your child knows that it can include physical abuse, verbal taunting, online harassment, or even passing on a hurtful message or rumor), and to explain just how damaging certain words and actions can be to others – even if your child didn’t “mean” them or think they would have a lasting impact.
You should also make a point to explain that when someone commits suicide because of bullying, many lives are ruined. As a parent, you don’t want a young person’s death on your head, or on that of your child.
If your child is caught bullying, you must take it very, very seriously. If you caught your child lying or stealing, you’d come down hard, right? You definitely wouldn’t brush off the behavior as “just a stage.” You’d do whatever was necessary to nip it in the bud. Treat bullying the same way.
I’m not here to tell you how to punish your child – just make sure that your child knows that bullying behaviors are not okay in your family. Talk to him about why he reacted the way he did, why it was wrong, and how he can better respond in the future.
Ultimately, this is one social change that will happen because ordinary parents are purposeful in how they’re raising their children. We have the power and responsibility to change this view, now that we fully understand the thousands of lives that bullying affects every day. And that change must start now.  

Todd Patkin is the author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and – Finally – Let the Sunshine In (findinghappinessthebook.com)

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