Mean Girls & Boys

Recognizing bullying as a form of abuse

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Jowharah Sanders is a big believer in the adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." A survivor of abuse herself, she started the year-old organization National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment (NVEEE) to work with youth in their communities to fight bullying and school violence. "We focus a lot on not being a bystander," Sanders says.

Her message to parents, schools, and communities is that the physical altercations, verbal harassment, and emotional abuse of bullying is incredibly harmful in all its forms, and should not be seen as just another part of growing up. "I don't even think the word bullying is a strong enough word for what is going on." She believes that what doesn't kill you makes your stronger, she reiterates, "but it is killing them."

The 2004 film Mean Girls fictionalizes high school dynamics, as a new student infiltrates a popular clique to spy on and prank "the Plastics" for past bullying. Trainer William Woodley uses clips from the film in his presentations.

Several recent suicides of youth who were gay or perceived to be seem to underline Sanders's point. Tammy Aaberg thought her 15-year-old son Justin had the perfect life, but after he hanged himself in July, his friends explained that he'd been bullied. Billy Lucas, also 15, was perceived to be gay by taunting classmates; he hanged himself during International Suicide Prevention Awareness Week in September. A Houston 13-year-old, Asher Brown, came out to his parents in the morning and shot himself in the afternoon. These are just a few of more than half a dozen cases to hit the media in the last few months. While the details of each incident vary, the theme is clear: bullying can have severe and long-lasting effects on young victims.

"You get layers and layers of trauma on top of your thought process," William Woodley explains. Woodley is a senior trainer at Parsons Child & Family Center, part of the New York State Coalition for Children's Mental Health Services, a CWLA member, and has frequently done presentations about bullying for health, mental health, education, and social work audiences. He agrees that it's important to recognize bullying as abuse. He says that youth who are bullied repeatedly--in many cases every day at school--can't help but start believing the taunts and insults that are levied against them. "Their self-image is so poor, that they think [the bullies] must be right," he says.

Nikki Geiger, a family therapist at Children & Families of Iowa, another CWLA member agency, confirms that low self-esteem is a big concern when she works with bullying victims. But, she adds, children respond differently, so there is a range of reactions. "We see everything," she says, from mild depression or anxiety, to physical responses like stomachaches or headaches, to severe posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms like nightmares or suicidal ideation.

"Can it affect you as you move on to [being] an adult? Absolutely," Geiger asserts. While many people think of bullying as schoolyard fights, it's often much more than that, and Geiger says the emotional scars are longer lasting. "The physical injuries of bullying will heal a lot easier." She emphasizes that the way adults react to children being bullied--or being bullies--can have a huge impact. Bullying victims may become timid adults held back from reaching their full potential, while bullies may continue their aggressive behavior if not checked early. In addition to the obvious ways bullying might hamper a student's school achievement, like leading him or her to skip class, Woodley points to research that has shown bullying victims use a different part of their brains than their peers sitting in class, as they create plans for steering clear of their bullies. "What they learn is how to avoid, not math concepts," he says. "Victims are not going to be able to learn the information they need to go on from school."

How Bullying Happens

Victims

"It's a problem for every community, for every kid, for every child," Sanders says. She explains that while some organizations focus on one particular demographic group of students, NVEEE recognizes that violence doesn't discriminate, so neither do they. Most studies conclude that between 15% and 25% of American students are bullied regularly. Woodley says he's seen research with even higher numbers: "75% of students are victims of severe bullying at least once." And it starts early--Geiger works with children as young as 3, and bullying usually kicks in soon after that. "I've had kids who have experienced bullying and who have been bullies as young as 4 and 5, just entering kindergarten," she reports. In these early cases, the bullies are usually children who have not been to preschool or day care. "They don't know the social skills, they don't know how to interact with their peers," Geiger explains.

In any given school environment, youth outside the norm are the most obvious targets. "It's the kids who have differences," Geiger says. Youth get bullied "because of their weight, because of their height, because of their sexual orientation, because of their parents' sexual orientation." Students who are new to a school can often be bullied because they're new--youth in foster care, who may have to switch schools frequently, can be susceptible to this. For foster youths' views on bullying, see the sidebar below labeled "Former Foster Youth Speak Out About Bullying."

"Empress of Radio, Queen of Talk" Stephanie Miller visited The Trevor Project's Randy Stone West Coast Call Center. Miller, who came out on the radio this year, is an advocate of The Trevor Project's work and is a member of the organization's Vanguard Council.

More national attention has been given to youth who are gay or perceived to be, in light of a string of suicides among that population. Dr. Jeffrey Fishberger is a board member and on-call psychiatrist for The Trevor Project, a crisis management and suicide prevention organization that serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. The Trevor Project includes a telephone lifeline and several online options for youth in crisis to connect to counselors. "A fair number of young people are dealing with some type of bullying--not just physical but also emotional," Fishberger says. He works in New York City, and from visiting schools in the tri-state area, he has seen that urban and suburban schools reveal the same prejudice. He also notes that while prevailing opinion says that younger generations are more accepting of LGBTQ individuals, the facts don't back that up: "These young people who are being bullied are being bullied by their peers."

Fishberger recalls a story he heard from one student, "one morning going from class to class, this person heard 50 homophobic remarks." He adds that there's another group of students indirectly affected by bullying--students who are not out about their sexual orientation. "They may not have experienced bullying yet, but the bullying is affecting them. They're feeling like they're not safe in their own school. [They say,] 'I want to come out in my school, but I'm really afraid, because I've seen the way other people ... have been treated,'" Fishberger explains.

Perpetrators

Why do some children bully others? According to Geiger, many bullies have been bullied themselves at some point. More often than not, bullies have suffered abuse at home, from parents or siblings. "They have no control at home," Geiger explains, so once they get to school, "they seek out that con-trol, try to get that power." Fishberger agrees that bullying often originates at home. "Children learn--they learn from either their parents, or religious leaders, or political leaders." If they see their adult role models engaging in physical or verbal abuse, children will do the same. "They think this is okay."

Geiger and Woodley note that both boys and girls can be bullies, but they use different tactics. "I've noticed with girls it's a lot more verbal, it's a lot more of the drama and the arguments on Facebook. With boys it's much more physical, they want to intimidate," Geiger explains. Woodley adds that girls who are part of gangs can be just as physically violent as boys, but generally he thinks girls are "more devious," frequently not engaging in direct confrontation themselves, but instead spreading rumors, inciting peers to act out, or forming alliances between social groups. "They have this concept of spies," he explains. "They put a girl in a clique, and that girl will watch and bring back information." He notes that portrayals of bullying in pop fiction, like the 2004 film Mean Girls, are often accurate and a good way to show adults what may be going on in their children's schools. He says he's used clips from Mean Girls in his presentations.

Cyberbullying

In the last five years, cyberbullying--repeated online harassment that reflects the power imbalance of traditional bullying--and bullying via text messages or voicemails has been on the rise. While social networks can help friends connect, they can also create another venue for emotional abuse. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Maier committed suicide after being bullied on MySpace. Geiger adds Facebook and myYearbook to the list of social media sites to watch and Sanders says teens at NVEEE have cited Formspring as a bullying venue as well. "Through text messages, through the internet, it has really taken it to another level," Sanders says. "I'm very disappointed in the level of cyberbullying that is going on; that is a major problem."

Geiger says cyberbullying might make victims feel more overwhelmed. "I think it's harder for kids to cope with, just because they don't have that safe place where they can get away." Woodley points out that another complicating factor of cyberbullying is the fact that some online bullies are in-person victims. Because they can take advantage of online anonymity, they feel confident in striking back at others who instigate or allow bullying. Woodley calls them "proactive victims--they have been victimized, they use anonymity as a way to get even with others in the school system."

Why Bullying Continues

Many complaints of bullying are dismissed with comments like "boys will be boys," or "it's just talk, they're not hurting anyone." But experts warn that it can be incredibly harmful to treat bullying like a rite of passage or a trivial incident. "Why should it be part of growing up? It's physically and mentally detrimental," Fishberger says.

Geiger shares a telling fact: "I don't have any kids who have come in for bullying." Families reach out for treatment for the "side effects" of bullying, like depression and anxiety. Bullying victims learn to dismiss the abuse they receive. "The teachers will say 'walk away,' or 'ignore it.' [Children] think that teachers or parents don't take it seriously," Geiger explains. "If the kids feel like they can't trust you, and that you're not a safe person to talk to, they're going to feel even more lost." And perhaps most importantly, victims don't want to tell adults about being bullied. "Kids don't want to be honest," Geiger says. "They don't want to hurt mom and dad's feelings, or they don't want mom and dad to be too involved."

Woodley confirms that getting adults involved is dicey territory for victims. They fear retaliation from the bullies if adults don't handle the situation properly. "Victims fear that adults will confront the bully in such a way that it [increases] the risk," he says. "Bullies survive by creating the myth [that] should their behavior be reported, the retaliation will be swift and severe." He says victims think that whether or not their bully comes after them again, the bully's compatriots will, and they simply can't be sure adults will act appropriately to protect them. "Lack of trust will lead to helplessness among victims and increased power among bullies," he explains.

Fishberger believes there are some teachers, administrators, and parents who are oblivious. He's visited schools that seem to have an open and accepting culture, but little things--graffiti on desks, jokes with derogative terms--reveal fault lines. "There are probably schools that are successful, but a young person is never free from homophobia," he says. Sanders thinks that the more challenging problem is adults or even other youth who see bullying taking place, but don't say anything about it. She cites NVEEE's Not On My Watch campaign as a way to reduce this "bystanderism."

How to Stop Bullying

"Something aggressive has to happen, because violence is aggressive," Sanders says. "We need to find a peaceful way, but an aggressive way." In addition to their campaigns, NVEEE advises school districts and works directly with students through mentoring. Sanders personally experienced school-related violence, and she finds that her story allows her to relate to youth who are suffering. "I share more with teens and with my mentees than I do necessarily with the parents," Sanders explains. "I become that 15-year-old again.... I almost felt like I didn't want to share it in the beginning [because] this is not about me, [but] sharing my story was actually helping them."

Fishberger would like to see ongoing education for students and faculty alike about what it means to go through bullying. He says LGBTQ youth especially would benefit if peers reexamined their language behavior. He's involved in many of The Trevor Project's programs, which include the telephone lifeline and several online components: instant messaging with counselors (TrevorChat), a question-and-answer forum (Dear Trevor), and a social networking hub (TrevorSpace). These are great options for LGBTQ youth, but Fishberger encourages adults who work with youth to open up and talk to them if there's reason to be concerned. "It's important for people who work with young people every day to be aware and mindful," Fishberger says. Look out for changes in behavior or appearance. "If they appear depressed, don't be afraid to talk about depression or suicide. Suicide has a huge stigma in our society still--it's not going to go away by not talking about it."

Geiger also emphasizes education for parents and children, and she recommends the Stop Bullying Now! website, which has materials for both groups. There are games, webisodes, fact sheets, and links to more resources like state laws and expert advice. CWLA was involved in the development of the Stop Bullying Now! resources. Once parents have been able to establish open communication with their children, Geiger adds, they need to be prepared to let the school know what's going on. "I know parents want their children to be self-sufficient," she says, "but a lot of times, kids still need our help."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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