Q: My husband and I believe our nine-year-old grandson is being bullied at school. What should we do?
A: Wow! This is a huge question with five parts, discussed below. Let me know if you need further assistance.
Part 1: Definition
Bullying is broadly defined to include harassment, intimidation, threats, and assault. Basically, it is abuse. Furthermore, the bullying does not have to be in-person. Bullying can be through “slam books” in which people write mean things about an individual or cyberbullying via social media.
Bullying includes racial slurs, ethnic slurs, religious slurs, socioeconomic slurs, academic slurs, sexual slurs such as sexual orientation or sexual status, gender slurs, name-calling, taunting, punching, slapping, tripping, shunning, stalking, hazing, spreading rumors, posting degrading or harmful pictures, and even wearing gang accessories. Examples include painting a swastika, calling someone a whore or pork chop, posting drunk pictures, or standing and whispering and then looking directly at an individual. Whereas males tend to be more physically aggressive, females tend to be more verbally aggressive.
Part 2: Intention
Regardless of the type of bullying or the type of bully, all bullying is intended to draw power. Some bully in order to elevate their social status, some feel entitled, some have been bullied themselves, some want revenge, some want to fit into a desired group, and some bully to boost their self-esteem.
Therefore, the targeted person or persons can be chosen almost randomly. It is incorrectly assumed that the weak are the easiest prey. Jimmy Kimmel has aired several segments of “Mean Tweets” in which celebrities read the hateful things said about, and to, them via Twitter.
Schools have their own customs and stratum. Since the students tend to be in the same age range and from the same general geographic area, other criteria are used to distinguish groups. In any school, there usually are at least “the jocks,” “the geeks,” and “the popular kids”. What defines those groups may change slightly from elementary to middle to high school. Bullying is one way to sort people socially and distinguish one’s self. For what it’s worth, schools are macrocosms of the larger world.
Part 3: School policy and State Law
Although bullying can occur in the workplace, the question is related to school. Currently, there is running on television a series of public service advertisements with celebrities declaring they will not stand for bullying or harassment. Most schools have taken a “zero tolerance” stance. While this is all well and good, it actually does not address the issue. Saying it is no good does not do enough to change it.
School administrators complain that bullying continues in their schools because it is not reported. Therefore, they are not aware of it. At this point, it is safe to say it goes on in every school and at every level. Some schools have installed metal detectors at entrances to prevent students bringing knives and guns to school.
The average school administrator determines to get the facts to first determine whether it actually is a case of bullying. The facts include the identities of both the bullied child, or children, and the bullies, whether there is gang involvement, the situation, what occurred, and the history of conflict between or among the parties.
Hopefully, the administrator does not call the bully and the victim together to recount what happened or include bystanders in the questioning. The process of fact finding itself, however, is potentially perilous. The bully or bullies receive attention for their behavior which ultimately serves as reinforcement. Furthermore, the bully draws more power by getting the administrator involved. It does not even matter what stance the administrator takes, be it detention, suspension, or expulsion; the bully already has achieved satisfactory power.
Moreover, academia is a cloistered community, what used to be referred to as a little “Peyton Place.” Students generally determine what has happened and who the significant parties are. More students turn into bullies toward both the original bullies and the one who snitched, or engaged in “tattle tale” by either shunning or engaging in name calling. Meanwhile, the bullied individual suffers more public humiliation.
Since 1999, all states but Montana have passed school anti-bullying legislation. The penalties vary from state to state. As of 2012, North Carolina instituted imprisonment and/or a stiff fine for cyberbullying school employees, including having spam forwarded to a teacher.
School anti-bullying programs need to be more than policies of punishment. Schools need prevention programs. The educational component needs to include appropriate ways to garner desired power for both would-be bullies and their victims. Witnesses to abuse often suffer significant trauma themselves and require supportive help. Prevention programs also need to be repeated.
Part 4. Talking to the victim
The first thing is to remain calm. As grandparents, are you your grandson’s guardians? If not, has your grandson come to you prior to speaking with his mother and or father or are you hearing about this secondhand? If you are not his guardians, you want to make sure his parents know your concerns. Then, you and his parents may determine who is the best person of all of you to speak with your grandson. Choose which one of you to whom he would be most comfortable frankly revealing details.
Is your grandson upset? You want to know what upset the child. Ask open ended questions such as, “What upset you,” rather than closed questions that can only be answered with yes or no. That would be considered “leading the witness.” Let your grandson tell his story in his own words. When he is finished, you may ask who, what, when, where, and how questions for clarification and more details. For instance, you might ask, “Where did this happen,” “Who was it,” “What did you do then,” or “When was it”. Refrain from asking “why” as that is a conclusion difficult to ascertain even by adults.
When you have received enough information about the incident to understand what happened, talk with your grandson about his understanding of the bully’s intent. If he were five years old, he would not understand intent, but at age nine, he is able to speculate about intent. His speculation may be as simple as “the bully intended to be mean” or “he doesn’t like me.” That is when you may explain the bully wants to be important. With this understanding comes a shift in the balance of power.
Next, you want to speak with your grandson about his emotional reaction to the bully’s behavior. This is where it is difficult to remain objective and neutral if you yourself have not adjusted to the notion that thoughts about situations, rather than situations themselves, create feelings. This is when you want to communicate that nothing ever is personal. Your grandson need not be shamed by what happened and his self-worth is not incumbent upon who does or does not like him.
Once he has worked through his emotional reaction, your grandson will be able to entertain ideas of what he could do to respond to bullying. Most nine-year-old children are able to repeat by rote that they should tell the teacher. In fact, they almost sound robotic when they say it. However, if you ask them what will happen if they tell the teacher, they likely will tell you that they will be bullied for telling the teacher and even that the teacher will do nothing to stop the bullying.
Use this opportunity to allow your grandson to brainstorm ideas without shooting them down. You may combine use of the techniques of “priming the pump” and “lending ego” by suggesting he build a spaceship to send the bully to the moon. Surely, your grandson will laugh. He also may want to negate the idea. At this stage, all ideas are acceptable. As a nine-year-old boy, he may advocate physical violence against the perpetrator. Hopefully, you know this is a bad idea as is ignoring the bullying. Resist telling him flat-out how to respond.
Once he has enumerated several options, you may ask him to pick the one he thinks he would be most likely to pursue with success. But do not stop there. Discuss how the bully might respond and what your grandson would do then. Role-play if it helps. If it turns out his first option is not the best, have him work through the second option, and so on. Your (or his parents’) discussion with your grandson will conclude with him being empowered and more confident.
Finally, ask what would make him feel safe. If you deem it necessary to involve the school, discuss your intentions and how it would impact your grandson.
Part 5: Addressing the bully
If it turns out your grandson was the bully in the situation, you still will follow the above steps. What happened? Was he upset? What upset him? What was he trying to accomplish? Did it turn out the way he intended? What is his empathic response to the victim? What could he have done different? What would he do in the future? What does he need to do to take responsibility for his behavior? How would he apologize? If it took place at school, what does he need to say to the school administrator? You want to take a positive direction to change the behavior rather than bullying the bully.
You will want to work cooperatively with your grandson for a solution. If this involves speaking with a school administrator, it might be better if your grandson were not present and witnessed by other students. It is better to speak with the school principal than the teacher or vice principal as this involves school policy. It is not a good idea to have the victim confront the bully in the school office. Just as it is not a good idea to put the victim and the bully together, it is not a good idea to put the relatives of the victim and the relatives of the bully together. Discuss with the school administrator a proposed solution. Also discuss appropriate follow-up as bullying does not stop immediately.
If the situation was merely one of peer conflict, there would be no reason to involve officials. Hazing and dating violence, possible with older children, require involving officials. When a weapon is involved, it obviously is more serious than mere resolution.