School Is Back, and So Is Bullying

Responding like a bully only makes two bullies

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school each day because they fear bullying from other students. 

Beginning in 2012, the New York State Education Department has required all public schools to file reports on incidents of bullying, harassment, intimidation or menacing. The state defines bullying and harassment as creating “hostile environments through threats, intimidation or abuse, including cyberbullying.”

Some children fear reprisal at school if they tell their parents about a bullying situation at school. But the effects of bullying may manifest as signs parents can spot at home.

“Sometimes it’s a stomachache first thing in the morning and they’re fine on weekends,” said physician Kathleen Grisanti, president and medical director of Pediatric and Adolescent Urgent Care of WNY with local practices in Williamsville and Orchard Park.

“We suggest parents keep an eye on the timing. It could be something or someone at school they want to avoid.”

Children may also try to explain injuries, lack of interest in activities or missing or damaged possessions as bullying progresses.

Bullying behavior commonly stems from issues the bully experiences at home because of parental neglect, abuse or mistreatment. Children often bully as a means of acting out to get attention or as a misguided attempt at building their ego.

“When you look at the kid who’s the bully, they have some pretty horrible stories,” said Stacy Salamone psychologist based in Cheektowaga. “I recommend treating a bully with compassion and trying to understand why. Is it because they’re bullied at home and they want some even negative attention? You should feel bad for this kid if he’s bullying and not trying to make friends; he’s having a hard time.”

By attempting to understand the bully, the victim can respond in a way that won’t exacerbate the situation. She encourages parents to teach their children to not feed into bullying and to use words to express that they do not like what the bully is saying or doing. Responding like the bully only makes two bullies.

Asking bullies why they are acting this way, responding with humor or walking away can represent ways to respond to bullies.

“I’d still involve an authority figure so if they have something going on at home, someone may need to check it out,” Salamone said. “I’m concerned about the bully if they’re showing aggression and it’s reinforced at home.”

She also encourages parents to “model that empathy and compassion. That’s the best way to be proactive about these difficulties. Empathy is, ‘Wow, I understand why you’re feeling this way, as if it were happening to me.’ The attempt to search for a deeper understanding and identify with how they’re feeling.”

Bullies need to learn to solve problems in a way that is not aggressive. Social skills like taking turns, losing a game or making friends may be lacking. While other children cannot be expected to fill in these gaps, becoming aware of why the bully may act out can be helpful in responding in more constructive ways.

“We want them to be proactive and encourage pro-social behavior,” Salamone said. “It’s two people who are being helped essentially. Let’s confront bullies and help them.”

She likes the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Some children bully because they are anxious about social settings. It is easier to assure a dominant social status by force than to risk it by playing nice. Extending friendship to these children may cause their tough kid facade to crumble.

When strategies like these do not work, or if a situation is immediately violent, children need to know that they should let a teacher, coach or school counselor know right away and tell their parents at home.

Many children feel uncomfortable sharing about bullying outside their home; however, telling a school official about the bullying is usually necessary to resolve it. If this does not help the situation and it continues for a long time, children may need mental health treatment because of the stress and anxiety it causes.

Coping with Bullying offers a few tips to help bystanders deescalate a bullying situation:

• Question the bullying behavior. Simple things like changing the subject or questioning the behavior can shift the focus.

• Use humor to say something funny and redirect the conversation.

• There is strength in numbers, too! Bystanders can intervene as a group to show there are several people who don’t agree with the bullying.

• Walk with the person who is the target of bullying to help diffuse potential bullying interactions.

• Reach out privately to check in with the person who was bullied to let them know you do not agree with it and that you care. It makes a difference.