Effects of Bullying
What parent hasn’t recited the familiar adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” True, an occasional cruel word is not likely to permanently scar the psyche of its victim, but when the victim is repeatedly attacked – either verbally or physically – the end result can be tragic.
By Linda Benton
By definition, bullying is any repeated action that is used to hurt or degrade another child. Often cloaked and accepted as teasing or horseplay, bullying is not a right of passage that every child must endure to survive in the real world.
According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 30 percent of youth in the United States (over 5.7 million) are estimated to have been involved in bullying, as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both.
Image of a Bully
The stereotypical image of a bully portrays a bigger and stronger child with low self-esteem exerting dominance over a weaker and smaller victim to build himself/herself up. Surprisingly, recent studies paint a different picture. Bullies are quite often popular kids who attract many followers. They often have a positive self-image, but an inappropriate desire to be in control. Bullies feed off power and gain that power by showing others who is boss.
Jane Welch, school counselor at Nolan and Thrasher elementary schools on Signal Mountain, says bullying is more pervasive than people think. “It takes many shapes and forms, and crosses all socioeconomic groups,” says Welch.
Though the tactics between boys and girls may differ, the effects can be just as devastating to the victim. Boys typically use verbal aggression when they bully, but they may also participate in physical aggression. Using phrases like “you’re a loser” is one of the ways boys try to gain dominance over their victims. Girls typically use exclusionary techniques to bully – a form of aggression referred to as relational aggression. Rumors, cliques, sexual slurs, exclusion and the “cold shoulder” show dominance over victims. “I’ve seen girls as early as third grade forming cliques to intentionally exclude a classmate,” Welch adds. Bullying can occur face-to-face or – in today’s world of technology – through text and instant message or the Internet.
Importance of Empathy
Welch believes bullying could be reduced if kids are taught empathy skills while they are young. “Research has shown that by the age of 14 it is very hard to teach empathy – it must be done while children are young,” says Welch. “Parents need to be reminded that it is important to help their children be aware of others and to treat others like they want to be treated. The best way for parents to teach empathy is modeling the behavior – children must see their parents, in action, helping others.” (See the sidebar below.)
Victims & Suffering
The profile of a victim is hard to define. Children can be victimized based on appearance, skin color, religion, clothing, or just because they appear weak and vulnerable. Often times, children who live in households where parents and/or siblings are allowed to bully other members of the family are more likely to lash out.
LeAnn Welch, college access counselor at Signal Mountain Middle/High School, says that because bullying can be so subtle, or can involve a series of seemingly insignificant incidences, victims often suffer in silence. “We’ve developed an advisor program at our school to help kids not just academically, but socially, as well,” says Welch. “We want to make sure every student feels they have someone to talk to, someone who will listen and offer guidance and solutions to problems.”
This year, the City of Chattanooga’s Department of Education, Arts & Culture focused on bullying as a part of their issue-driven reading initiative, a program that encourages the community to read, share and discuss books focused on particular social issues. “We wanted to encourage kids to read books about current social issues and to stimulate dialogue,” says Missy Crutchfield, the department’s administrator. “We tackled bullying for the 2009 school year with the book Enemy Pie for elementary students and Letters to a Bullied Girl for middle and high school students.” Crutchfield says the response was overwhelming.
Jenny Rittgers, then coordinator of Notre Dame High School’s Christian Leadership Group, says her students really related to the issue of bullying and decided to do more than just read the books – they wanted to get involved. “Unfortunately, we had an issue last year with a group of kids who were involved in some ‘mean girl-type’ activities; it affected the whole school,” Rittgers shares candidly. “My students really wanted to take the anti-bullying message community-wide. So with the help of WGOW Talk Radio, they were able to go on-air to talk openly about their bullying experiences – both as victims and as perpetrators – and they were able to share advice with students who called in with their own personal bullying experiences.”
Crutchfield says the City of Chattanooga Department of Education, Arts & Culture couldn’t be happier with the response they have had to the “What’s Going On?” reading initiative this school year. “The reading initiative and the two books we have focused on this year have really opened a community-wide dialogue about bullying. And talking about these issues, and the possible solutions, is really the first step in tackling the problem.”
For information about the “What’s Going On?” Reading Initiative, contact Melissa Turner, City of Chattanooga Department of Education, Arts & Culture, at (423) 425-7823.
Linda Benton is a resident of Signal Mountain. She earned the distinction of Magna cum Laude with a BBA in Marketing from the University of Memphis. Linda is currently the managing director for Chattanooga’s Women Leadership Initiative (CWLI).