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. According to Todd Patkin, 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 the National Institutes of Health:
• About 47 teens are bullied every five minutes.
• Seventy-one percent of students report bullying as an ongoing problem.
• About 282,000 students are reportedly attacked in American high schools each month.
Here are some of the most worrying statistics of all:
• Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their non-bullied peers to consider suicide .
• A teenager attempts suicide every 30 minutes as a result of bullying.
“To put it bluntly, what we’re doing to combat bullying clearly isn’t working,” says Patkin, author of Finding Happiness : One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. “Suicides are still happening, and that’s not even mentioning the thousands of kids whose lives are destroyed or diminished—but not ended—by bullying.”
Yes, bullying is a big problem.
Patkin knows from personal experience just how devastating bullying can be. Being the target of several tormenters filled his high school years with much anxiety, and the effects of being bullied lasted into his adulthood.
“My tormenters verbally abused me, and they would also push me around and knock my books or drinks out of my hands,” Patkin recalls. “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.”
Patkin isn’t alone. In fact, research has shown that the fear, social anxiety, shame, low self-esteem, and anger that bullying causes can rear their heads throughout adulthood, often at crucial moments, causing individuals who were once bullied to stick with “easy,” “safe,” or “defensive” choices instead of those that might prove most beneficial. 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,” Patkin states. “By preventing a young person from being bullied, we may be freeing him or her 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 has gotten a lot of media attention, and as a result, schools and communities are providing more and 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? According to Patkin, we’re putting too much responsibility on the young people we’re trying to protect.
“Schools put out a lot of rhetoric on dealing with and preventing bullying, but the problem is still rampant,” he points out. “That’s because our current approach revolves around requiring kids to tell on each other—and it’s not as effective as we hoped. For several reasons, young people just aren’t reporting the bullies.”
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 certainly didn’t ask teachers or my parents for any help when I was in high school because I was so ashamed of my weakness in dealing with my bullies,” Patkin admits. “Also, I was afraid that if my teachers or parents stepped in, their interference would just make my tormenters focus their efforts on me more. I’d be even more on the outside because I’d ratted out my peers.”
Patkin believes that many young people today feel just as powerless to speak up and “out” bullies—and he also points out 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?” Patkin asks. “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!” Patkin insists. “There needs to be a palpable stigma attached to tormenting and belittling another person in this way.”
Patkin compares 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”—just as, until recently, bullying was seen as “a part of kids growing up.”
Then an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) took up the cause and dramatically changed the way in which Americans viewed drunk driving. Through publicity campaigns and a grassroots movement, MADD caused the public to view driving while intoxicated as something that is reprehensible, irresponsible, dangerous, and even criminal. MADD’s efforts also helped to enact stronger penalties against drunk drivers.
“Similarly, bullies need to lose the ‘cool’ image that comes with being at the top of the social pecking order,” Patkin says. “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,” Patkin says. “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. Over time, this attitude will spread and will hopefully become just as ingrained in the public psyche as our negative views on drunk driving. 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. (Admit it; you’ve thought something along the lines of, My child would never make fun of someone just to be mean.) And 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,” Patkin suggests. “As a parent, you don’t want a young person’s death on your head, or on that of your child.”
Patkin is also adamant that 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—consequences are your family’s business,” Patkin clarifies. “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.” Note to Editor: See accompanying tipsheet for more strategies on how to squelch bullying.
“Ultimately, this is one social change that will happen because ordinary parents are purposeful in how they’re raising their children,” Patkin concludes. “In the past, bullies have been seen as ‘cool’—they’ve even been glamorized in popular culture thanks to movies like Mean Girls. 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.”