Monday, February 27, 2012

Bullying 400: Reaching Out to Parents

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Parents both of bullies and of victims can be left feeling helpless, unsure of how to best help their children.  Maybe you are losing touch with your children and they don't seem to want to talk to you as much these days.  Children are masterful at hiding what's going on, so many parents are left unaware of the problems that exist in their children's lives.  Here are a few things to look for which may be indicators.1

Is my child a victim?
  • are they withdrawn at home?
  • have they complained of no friends at school?
  • is there a decreased desire to go to school?
  • have you noticed a significant decline in grades?
  • do they make negative or suicidal statements about themselves?
  • are they excessively temperamental?
  • do they often complain of having headaches, upset stomach or “just feeling sick”?

Has my child become a bully?
  • are they currently a victim of bullying or abuse, or have they been a victim in the past?
  • do they deny wrongdoing and shift blame to others?
  • are they touchy or irritable?
  • have they had consistent problematic behavior at school?
  • are there high amounts of household stress or marital troubles?
  • are they argumentative and defiant?

Although these factors do not necessarily mean that your child is either a bully or has become a victim, they often present as warning signs to consider, rather than ignoring or minimizing them.  Parents play a critical role in the development of their children's view of self.  You can help them to figure themselves out in the midst of a confusing and difficult time. 

What you can do to help

1. Acknowledge your child's emotions.

A parent can benefit their child by helping them to understand their emotions. “You seem angry, I know that is unpleasant” Simply by acknowledging their emotions, you can help them to feel understood.  Knowing that their parent can understand how they are feeling bridges a chasm of communication difference.  Victims can believe that their emotions are insignificant.  Bullies often act aggressively because of low emotional awareness.

2. Encourage them in developing positive characteristics.
Parents can get stuck only seeing the bad. Take the time to notice your children and what makes them uniquely special.  Small comments like: “your hair looks nice today,” or “I love the way your smile brightens a room up.”  When your child has worked hard on something take the time to let them know that you notice their efforts.  Look for positives wherever they are.  The both bullies and victims have difficulty seeing positive things in themselves.  Positive reinforcers are actually much stronger than punishments.

3. Talk to the counselor at your local school. 
Make them aware of situations that exist and ask for their help.  Often the school officials are unaware of the problems that exist in their own schools.  Open communication and collaboration between teachers, parents and school counselors can be a powerful positive force for effectively dealing with bullying.  If your child is the aggressor, be firm and consistent with them in applying rules also at home. Let them know, lovingly, that this behavior will not be tolerated and set specific consequences for continued behavior.

4. Help them figure themselves out within the family context.
Both bullies and victims suffer from lack of clarity about who they are.  The bully, as we mentioned last week, is often a natural leader using their gifts in a negative way.  Take the time to listen to your child.  If your child believes that you care about them and are willing to empathetically listen and get to know how they see themselves more disposed they are to open up.  This takes maintaining an attitude of curiosity and wonder about who your child is, rather than dictating every aspect of who they must be.  The hope is to enable them to develop in a God-glorifying way, both as a member of the family and as an individual with particular gifts and abilities, and interests. 

5. Seek professional help.
When bullying behavior is allowed to continue for extended periods, children are at an increased risk for criminal and self-destructive behaviors.  Victims of bullying, too, can show increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies.  Parents , themselves, can feel overwhelmed with their own problems which makes it even more difficult to attend to their children's lives.  If you feel helpless, it is okay to ask for help.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bullying 310: Getting to the Heart of the Issue

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Confronting the current situation of bullying in schools is becoming increasingly difficult.  The movement seems to be away from direct interactions to indirect bullying means.  There are, however, common threads that exist among bullies.  The important question for us today is: why bullies engage in the behavior that they do?  Though there are many different causes and interrelated factors, this week's blog will briefly at two significant reasons.  Despite the way the victims tend to perceive bullying, the causes often have much less to do with them and much more to do with underlying causes within the perpetrator.

Bullying to gain social acceptance and attention
Bullying is systemic. It is not just a dance between two persons.  Our  basic human needs include human interaction and acceptance.  A child who receives the message of worthlessness, verbally or through non-verbal interactions at home or from peers, develops a deficient view of themselves.  This is evident both in family life, but also in the peer group setting of school.  Children desire attention and will do whatever it takes to receive it. Here the cycle of bullying/abuse easily repeats itself.  Those children who are bullied or abused often become perpetrators, themselves.

A wide variety of means to garner appreciation and attention exist.  Some children will isolate and take on the victim role to receive “mercy attention.”  Others push themselves academically, musically, or athletically to receive “accolade attention.”  Still others take on negative attention building roles to receive “punitive attention.”  Bullying is one form of this.  Each of these developed coping mechanisms begins to shape children's identities.  Hence, the bully builds a reputation for being a “bad kid” and comes to figure out who they are in their social world.  For them, having an identity and attention through bullying, is better than being a nobody.

Dr. Dan Olweus identifies a bullying circle that exists, which includes not only the bully and the victim, but the bystanders in school as well.  People inevitably choose sides to one degree or another.  Some children become supporters of the bully, either by silent consent or by active participation.  Some remain silent but side more with the victim.  Others may verbally and physically stand up for the victim, yet this seems to be more often not the case.  Intimidation becomes the socialization mechanism for the bully.  Supporters are gained and the bully takes a central role in the social system.1

Bullying as a position of power
Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. In order to protect oneself from perceived negative image, the bully will act first to disprove fears about themselves.  This negative view of self is often buried in the subconscious; the more the bullying takes place, the further the negative view of self can be submerged into the subconscious.  The bully repeats aggressive behavior to reinforce this redefinition of self and further distance themselves from their own fears.  All of this is based on a misunderstanding of the concepts of fear and respect, loyalty and leadership.  Often bullies are naturally born leaders without anyone to teach them how to be a leader. 

In a Machiavellian manner, they believe that if others fear them, they have gained respect. This is a means of gaining the loyalty of those around them and promoting their position of power.  However, if we look under the surface of things, fear is driving the car.  By striking fear in others, the bully is able to compensate for themselves. They can have a sense of control over their victim when they feel out of control themselves.  Bullying forms a set of conditioned responses in the victim, so whether their victim responds with passivity or by reacting back, the bully assumes a means of controlling the response of their victims and taking their voice from them.

Children have emotional processes running in the background.  When they are tied to their subconscious understanding of self, those emotions have a powerful force.  Children, just as adults, who are unable to put words on their emotions are much more susceptible to being led by them.  By identifying their emotions and finding appropriate outlets for them, a child gains a clearer understanding of themselves and an increased ability to regulate their behavior. 

Meeting the child's needs
Children need to be met where they are.  Erik Erikson identified the developmental task of children between 6 and 12 as industry or inferiority.  Between 12 and 18, children are trying to develop ego identity.  It is important for parents and teachers alike to recognize that throughout both of these periods, children do not yet know themselves.  Indeed, this is truly a life-long process.  Parents, teachers and peers all play a powerful role in child development.  With this in mind, the question becomes not “if,” but “how” we will help them develop their identity.  To the extent that adults facilitate peer group interaction, they should be aware of the group dynamics and how each child fits into the system.  At this point, the adult is best able to positively direct group interactions for the best interests of each child. 

Combating the bullying child's fears and push for power is difficult, since what needs addressing is being buried consistently deeper by the child.  The bullying is their means of avoiding a painful confrontation of personal thoughts and feelings.  If, as a parent, you begin fearing the development of bullying behavior in your child, take the time to listen to them.  Parents often fail to realize the amount of influence that they can have with their children simply by being a safe person for their child, being trustworthy for their child and taking the time to hear them.  For some children, therapy can be a good opportunity for them to get to their underlying fears and consequently be able to build up, in a positive way, their God-given leadership abilities.   Again, the key to remember is that children are often looking for guidance and are trying to figure out who they are in the world around them.  As adults, we  have the difficult task of helping them develop and finding out who God is molding them to be.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bullying 201: Empowering the Powerless

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

The child that is consistently picked on at school is rightly considered a “victim,” as they often feel vulnerable to the onslaught of abuse from their peers.  Fear overrides their internal system initiating a fight or flight response.  Those children who remain quiet and pensive in the midst of bullying seem to often internalize the words spoken or actions done to them by the perpetrator.  Instead of being able to build up their ego strength, they begin to believe that they are inherently flawed in their being.  Internal dialogues can begin building a child's self-identity in response to bullying.  “If I weren't such a loser, I wouldn't let them treat me this way.” “Maybe they are right and no one really does like me.”  “I am trash, worthless and can only be safe in isolation by myself.”  The bully begins defining their identity.

Emotional responses exist in conjunction with these cognitions.  Anger begins building toward the offender and even toward those who may give tacit consent to the bullying.  Often teachers, parents and peers discount bullying as simply a “part of life,” leaving the victim to feel even more isolated and misunderstood.  Sadness, anxiety follow quite easily.  They may feel as though they were the scape-goat and the focus of everyone's scorn and ridicule: a lightning rod for shame.  In these instances a child needs reassurance that they are not the cause of their own torment.  They need an advocate for them.

One of the great dangers inherent within bullying is the tendency for the victim to believe lies about themselves and lies about God's care for them: “God doesn't care that I have to go through this every day at school. Nobody cares.”  The more the negative self-image is reinforced through peers and even adults, the more entrenched it will become to the child's self-identity and thus more difficult to break.  In order to combat these lies, the child must be able to see themselves as a valuable image bearer of God who gives them worth.  They also need to know and experience human love which is symbolic of God's love. 

Even the child who chooses to stand up for themselves and talks back or fights back is being shaped by the bullying.  They are learning a survival-based pattern of interaction which shapes their understanding of the world as well as their place within the world.  Importantly, however, both categories of responses: fight or flight, can lead to perpetuating cycles of bullying.  As with cycles of abuse, the victim can easily become a wrongdoer and begin to become a bullier in order to “make up” for the way they perceive themselves.  Recognizing that everyone's heart is capable of the same depths of evil helps to safeguard against this mentality.  The child who is bullied needs to know and believe that the ones who attack them are acting wrongly, and that it is similarly unacceptable behavior for them repeat.

The differences between bullying and abuse are minimal.  Children who are subjected to daily ridicule, physical harm or neglect tend to develop a negative self-image.  When there is bullying at school and any type of abuse occurring in the home, the compound effects can be crippling.  The more factors there are in a child's life which reinforce a negative self-identity, the greater the risk to their well-being.  The student in school who has no friends and is shunned by others is being sent the message that they are unlovable and not worthy of even friendship.  God has created each one of us to be in relationships, not to be isolated individuals.  Help given to the bullied child should include attempts to foster positive social experiences.  Having at least one friend in school can dramatically change a child's experience for the better. 

Bullied children will often carry the “I'm defective” mentality into a therapy room.  Thus it is important for them to be given the chance to lead in the therapeutic process and speak from their own perspective as much as possible.  Group therapy for bullied individuals can be a powerful tool in shaping their world view.  Shared experiences and feelings can provide healing for those suffering from bullying.  They need to know that therapy is not about “fixing” them, but about reinforcing positive messages which equip and embolden them to own the truth and speak it clearly to themselves. “It is not my fault.  I do not have to let them define who I am, and who I will be.  I am a valuable child of God, despite what others might say or do to me.”  Helping a child to come to this place renders the bully powerless and allows the child to regain control of their identity.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bullying 101

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Many children are all too familiar with the concept of bullying.  They could give you a definition simply by talking about their daily routine.  Bullying has gotten significant attention, especially in the past few years, due to a growing awareness of other forms of aggression that take place via the internet and through cell phones.  The popular movie from 2004, “Mean Girls,” caused many to focus attention on psychological bullying that exists in schools today.  Bullying is much more than  the use of physical force. It can also take the form of  verbalized taunts and threats or be relational in nature such as spreading of gossip or deliberately excluding one person. It can be based on race, gender, sexuality or personality.  Technology has made bullying easier and more convenient.  Consequently, now intimidation and belittling can be done through social media sites, blogs or through bombarding victims with text messages.  Dr. Dan Olweus, who is considered a pioneer in bullying research, has categorized it this way: "A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself."1  Maybe this definition brings to memory your own childhood or maybe it is something your child is suffering with even now. 

One caution may be helpful to keep in mind.  It is possible to be over vigilant about bullying.  By this I mean that parents, teachers and other authority figures can begin to view everything through the expectation of bullying.  There exists a middle ground between indifference and hyper-sensitivity.  This middle ground ought to be one which does not ignore bullying that occurs, but it simultaneously keeps a realistic attitude towards it happening.   Bullying will take place, because not everything can be seen, but it must be dealt with to the greatest extent possible. This battle can be addressed from multiple fronts. 
  1. Caring for the child who is bullied to minimize its impact
  2. Working with the perpetrator to decrease bullying behavior
  3. Helping parents to help their children
  4. Working collaboratively with youth, parents and educators all together to educate and equip  them in proactively preventing bullying

The APA cites a 2001 study done of 15,000 youth from 6th through 10th grades.  This study found that  roughly one in five students reports being a bully or being a victim of bullying “'sometimes' or more.”2   The impact of this cannot be underestimated.  Not only does this affect their day to day lives, but bullying can have serious negative long-term consequences as it affects the individual's self-image.  It is my hope that you will find this month's blog informative and helpful, and that it provides you with tools to handle this difficult issue.

1 Olweus. What is Bullying?. Retrieved from

2 American Psychological Association (October 29, 2004). School Bullying is Nothing New, But Psychologists Identify New Ways to Prevent It, Retrieved from