Oh sure, blame the parents. We are always asking young people to take responsibility for their actions, but in the case of bullying behaviour among youth, parents can sometimes be inflicting additional damage to both bullies and their victims, without knowing it.
Some common misconceptions may lull the parents of bullies into failing to recognize warning signs.
Bullies are often star athletes or popular girls considered charismatic leaders by peers and adults, experts say. What’s often missed or passed over as minor is a consistent pattern of control and aggression against other kids — behaviour that socially savvy bullies can sometimes slide under the radar of grown-ups.
“It’s not what we typically think of. It’s not always the kid who’s pushing kids down on the playground,” says Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote Queen Bees and Wannabes, the basis for the movie Mean Girls.
“It’s children who feel like they’re the law of their school, that they have the right to set the law and if you challenge their power, like hooking up with the wrong boy, they have the right to put you in your place.”
Massachusetts high school freshman Phoebe Prince endured months of taunts and threats after she briefly dated a popular boy, prosecutors say. The 15-year-old hanged herself at home Jan. 14 and six of her classmates face charges.
Though Phoebe reached out to her parents and school officials in South Hadley, studies indicate that up to half of bullied children don’t report it. If they do, parents of perpetrators may not agree that the behaviour of their kids rises to the level of bullying.
“If they face the reality that there’s something wrong with their children, then there’s something wrong with them and their abilities as parents, so a lot of parents don’t want to face it,” says Erika Holiday, a Los Angeles psychologist who co-wrote Mean Girls, Meaner Women.
The “Stop Bullying Now” campaign of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as aggressive, intentional behaviour that involves an imbalance of power or strength and is typically repeated over time. While it can be physical, it’s often verbal, social or via cyberspace, driven by kids’ easy access at increasingly younger ages to social networks, text messaging and email.
Parents may be so pleased that their kids are on top socially that they fail to stress an important component of the role: power comes with “responsibility to treat others with dignity,” Wiseman says.
“This really goes to how we function as a civilized society and what our responsibility is to each other,” she says.
“Parents say my kid’s a good kid, he couldn’t possibly get into this situation. He’s a good athlete, he’s well-liked, but now he’s being suspended for the third time for some racial or hazing incident.”
Wiseman says teachers and school officials must work in concert with parents, something that often doesn’t happen. Without such partnerships, “It’s hard for a parent to really, fully comprehend how serious or dangerous a situation is.”
No parent wants to believe the worst, she says, choosing to accept and act on the rationalizations of their bullying children as the “one and only truth.”
Some misconceptions about bullying behaviour:
• Kids being kids — Rumour campaigns, teasing, name-calling and excessive fighting are not just “girls being girls, kids being kids,” Holiday says.
The mother of one of the girls charged in Phoebe’s case said Phoebe and her daughter used to trade insults, but she considered it “normal” for teenagers.
Without clear guidelines at school or in other settings on what is and isn’t considered bullying, parents are left to make judgments that might not jibe with the beliefs of others.
• They’ll grow out of it — Research indicates that bullies, who often were victims themselves, are more likely to face serious trouble later in life. “Bullies are at higher risk for alcoholism and drug abuse, at higher risk of going to jail,” Holiday says.
Wiseman says “most children who are mean or cruel think that something has been done to them first that justifies their behaviour, in all age groups. It’s never OK.”
• Good controllers — Wiseman urges parents to tune in to warning signs early on. She calls bullies “good resource controllers” who can manipulate other children with ease starting at a young age.
“When they’re younger, they control the tricycle on the playground that everybody wants and as they get older it can be things that they’re organizing or things that put them in positions of leadership, unofficial or not.”
While bullies are often “socially intelligent, can read people well and are charismatic,” Wiseman warned parents on the lookout for such behaviour that not all kids with those traits bully peers.
• Parents emotions — Parents may play out their own pasts as bullies or victims when taking on the social lives of their kids.
“There are parents who want their kids to be socially accepted and because they want the child to have a lot of friends, they accept mean behaviour so long as the right people like you,” Wiseman says.
The dynamic is an important one for bullies, who rely on “wannabes,” or followers, to help make it happen.
“We are on the long road to making decent human beings,” Wiseman says. “You’ve got to hold your kid accountable.”