What comes to mind when we think of the word ‘bullying’? Maybe it’s children taunting each other on the playground or pushing each other in the hallway. Maybe it’s excluding someone at the lunch table or spreading rumors behind their back. Maybe it’s calling someone names online after school.
This is bullying, and it’s happening in every community.
According to data by stopbullying.gov, as many as 1 in 3 students experience some form of bullying in their lifetime, with the most common forms being verbal and social. While bullying affects children of all ages, studies show that the majority of it happens in middle school, when children are trying to fit in with their peers and form social friend groups.
October is Bullying Prevention Month, a nationwide campaign to address and end the issue of bullying in and outside of schools. Pillars Community Health echoes this initiative through prevention education in schools and communities. Presentations in elementary, middle, and high schools cover topics like bullying, family violence, mental health, and resources for parents and educators. By increasing awareness in the communities we serve, we strive to empower students, teachers and parents to address these issues.
How Do We Talk About Bullying?
Bullying is often thought of as physical abuse or verbal taunts from one person onto another, but it’s much more complex than that. Despite the many stigmas and stereotypes that surround the issue of bullying, it’s not always as black-and-white as it seems.
“There’s a lot of fluidity involved,” says Lauren Pagan, Director of Domestic Violence Advocacy at Pillars Community Health. “You’re not only the bully, sometimes you’re also the person being bullied.”
In-school presentations given by the Domestic Violence outreach team focus on family violence as a way of relating more closely to school-age children. Instead of discussing the cycle of abuse or more mature issues like dating violence, they focus on social conflict that children experience among friends and siblings.
“Domestic abuse and family violence are all about power and control,” says Pagan. “Kids don’t always understand that. But if you start talking to them about bullying, they hear that word and know what it means, and they get it.”
The topic of bullying opens the doors for more in-depth conversations about setting boundaries. Presentations and group sessions also stress the importance of identifying healthy relationships by empowering kids and teens to find people that share their values.
“We focus on what’s important to them, like honesty or loyalty, and then try to identify that in their relationships with their friends and people in their lives,” says Pagan. “The goal is to help them know when a friendship or a relationship isn’t healthy, so that they feel empowered to get away from that situation, or speak up if they need help.”
Other forms of prevention education take a more direct approach to bullying. Pillars Community Health’s Sexual Assault outreach team offers school presentations specific to bullying, which follow the Steps to Respect Model. The model teaches friendship skills, prevention by teachers and parents, and planning for future success.
“A common stigma is that people will say ‘Oh, that’s just kids being kids’, but it’s more than that,” says Patty Murphy, Director of Sexual Assault Advocacy at Pillars Community Health. “Everyone used to just brush it off and go tell [kids] to work it out themselves. We don’t do that. We go in there and talk about it.”
Many children impacted by bullying don’t report it out of fear that they won’t be taken seriously, or that the harassment will just get worse. One of the team’s main messages is the importance of disclosure, and providing resources to kids and teens to encourage them to reach out for help if they need it.
“We tell them to write notes to an adult they trust if they aren’t sure how to start that conversation,” says Murphy. “A social worker, a teacher, it doesn’t matter who. That way, they’re still speaking up, but they’re doing it in a way that’s more comfortable for them.”
The Steps to Respect model also focuses on training parents and educators to intervene when they see bullying take place, and to respond compassionately when a child speaks out.
“So many of these issues are shameful to kids,” says Murphy. “They don’t like to talk about it because sometimes they’re embarrassed or scared. Adults need to respond appropriately and make a plan with not only the kid being bullied, but also address it with the ones who are doing the bullying. ”
Breaking the Silence of Cyberbullying
It’s no secret that children and young adults are more connected than ever before. With many using social media and technology to communicate, bullying can happen outside of the school hallways. According to DoSomething.org, nearly 40% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have experienced some sort of harassment on social media or through text messages. Many of them say that it’s happened to them more than once.
Unlike physical bullying, which can be visible to parents and teachers, cyberbullying is often overlooked as a threat. A recent study found that nearly 60 percent of students feel that the adults in their lives don’t know how to address cyberbullying, or don’t feel that it’s an issue.
“This goes deeper than [teachers and parents] are aware of,” says Anna Padron Sikora, VP of Community Engagement at Pillars Community Health. “We aren’t always in that environment. It’s a hard thing to educate [adults] about, because it’s not something that is always easy to see.”
As with physical bullying, students are encouraged to speak up if they experience harassment online or see it happening to someone else. However, this message is one that often falls short. Studies show that only 10% of teens who are harassed online will report it, and 60% have witnessed cyberbullying, but chose not to intervene.
“There are just so many more opportunities to be rejected online,” says Padron Sikora. “People will say things on social media that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face. And then someone else sees it or hears about it, and suddenly it’s spreading around and it can become a bigger problem.”
Cyberbullying can be just as harmful as physical abuse. Young adults who experience cyberbullying are at a higher risk for self-harm and suicidal behaviors. In 2007, 13-year-old Megan Meier died by suicide following a cyberbullying hoax orchestrated by a friend’s family. A few years later, in 2012, 15-year-old Amanda Todd posted a viral YouTube video about her struggles with bullying, which eventually led to her suicide.
While it’s not always a cause-and-effect relationship, bullying and cyberbullying can be a contributing factor to anxiety, depression, isolation, and changes in mood or academic performance in students. In today’s society, discussions about mental health are often riddled with stereotypes, which can prevent those who need help from seeking it. In-school presentations from Pillars Community Health’s Behavioral Health program attempt to break the stigma that’s often attached to mental health by giving students resources on how to discuss their feelings, as well as educating parents and teachers on things like suicide prevention.
“We are trying to break that cycle,” says Padron Sikora. “Part of why we talk to [students] is so that we can intervene early, and let them know that it’s okay to talk about ‘big’ feelings.”
Kindness is Key
Standing up to bullying is more than just stopping the action. Prevention education not only teaches conflict resolution, but the outreach teams also stress the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would want to be treated.
“One of the biggest things we try to focus on is kindness,” says Padron Sikora. “We try to tell [kids] that you never know what someone else is going through, so it’s important to remember to be nice.”
Empowering victims of bullying is only part of the solution. The other part is intervening before it happens.
“At the end of the day, we have to stop people from doing it in the first place,” say Murphy. “We need to start teaching empathy.”
Despite the different approaches to the conversation, the message is the same: Stand up for one another, and be supportive.
“There’s been a shift from awareness to social action,” says Pagan. “We used to just say ‘Okay, these things are happening, and we know about it.’ Now, we’re actually out there addressing it.”
In addition to community education, Pillars Community health offers a variety of health and social services, including medical and dental care, behavioral health services, domestic and sexual violence services, and more. Call us today at 708-PILLARS (708-745-5277), or click here to learn more.