By Dr. Kenneth Shore
You may hear people make false or misleading claims about bullying. These erroneous beliefs serve to downplay the seriousness of bullying and may keep school staff and parents from taking the necessary action to respond to this problem. Changing their false beliefs about bullying may help to change their response to the problem. Let’s take a look at a number of these myths.
“Bullying builds character.” Rather than building character, however, bullying can cause children to be anxious, fearful and unhappy. It may also lower their self-esteem. They may come to believe that something is wrong with them and that they even deserved the treatment. Some adults even contend that bullying can be a learning experience, but for most victims the lesson of bullying is that the world is unsafe and people are not to be trusted.
“Bullying is a harmless rite of passage that is a natural part of growing up.” Bullying may be a fact of life for many children but this does not mean that it needs to be accepted as a normal or inevitable part of childhood. And it is certainly not harmless. Many bullying victims endure lasting psychological scars.
“Bullying is no more than kids being kids.” Bullying is far different from child’s play. When children fool around, they do so out of choice. But victims of bullying do not choose to be tormented. And bullies and victims are not on an equal footing. The bully is typically stronger and more physically imposing than the victim.
“Kids bounce back quickly after being bullied.” While some children weather bullying more easily than others, many suffer long-term pain from the experience. And those who insist that they survived the ordeal without harm may have forgotten the genuine hurt that they felt at the time.
“Victims of bullying usually bring it on themselves through their behavior.” According to this notion, the victim provoked the bully into reacting and is thus blameworthy. The reality is that bullies often choose their victims because they appear weak, isolated or vulnerable or because they seem different in some way. We thus need to convey the message to victims that they did nothing wrong and it is the bullies who are in the wrong.
“Bullying will disappear if you ignore it.” In fact, the opposite is the case. Closing your eyes to the problem is giving license to bullies to continue inflicting pain on other children and telling victims that they have to handle bullying on their own. One student, when asked why he was bullying another student, gave the simple answer “because I can.” He was bullying because he felt he could get away with it. The reality is that bullying must be confronted vigorously and bullies must be held accountable for their behavior.
“Sticks and stones may break your bones but names can never hurt you.” Telling this to a bully is usually of little comfort to a child who is being constantly teased or called names. The pain caused by these verbal blows can often last longer than those from physical blows, especially if they are frequent and ongoing. This is captured in the following poem by an unknown author:
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words can also hurt me.
Sticks and stones break only skin,
While words are ghosts that haunt me.
Slant and curved the word-swords fall
To pierce and stick inside me.
Bats and bricks may ache through bones,
But words can mortify me.
Pain from words has left its scar
On mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises now have healed;
It’s words that I remember.
“Victims of bullying must learn to stand up for themselves.” While we want children to learn to resolve conflicts with their peers on their own, this does not mean that they should be left to fend for themselves in the face of typically bigger, stronger children. Some students are simply unequipped to deal with this intimidation so that retaliation could result in their getting hurt. In these cases, they need the help of an adult. And it needs to be explained to the victims of bullying that seeking help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of good sense.
“Hit the bully back and he’ll leave you alone.” Not only is this untrue in most cases, but it is likely to make the problem worse. Bullies are unlikely to back down if their victims fight back. Rather, they are likely to strike back if challenged, placing the victim in harm’s way. You also do not want to give the message that violence is acceptable. “No students are bullied in this school.” While some principals would like you to think that bullying does not take place in their schools, the reality is that virtually every school has bullies.