How’s this for irony? The word “bully” was first recorded in around 1530 from the Middle Dutch word “boele” or “lover,” and it was not until the 1700s that bully came to mean a “swaggering coward.”
I have always defined bullying cinematically. As a kid, mean boys were named Biff (“Back to the Future”) and mean girls Heather #1 (“Heathers”). As a parent, mean boys were named Hans (“Frozen”) and mean girls Regina George (“Mean Girls”). But, as licensed counselor Dr. Debi Lynes explains, over the year, the word bully has become a bit of a buzzword.
“When you talk about bullying, you need to define what bullying is,” Lynes said. “The term bullying is very specific, but in today’s culture, it has become more broad spectrum in terms of interpretation and consequences.” Lynes continued quoting the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then delved a bit deeper. “What that saying means is that people can be unkind and say things that are mean-spirited, but that does not mean we have to take those words to heart. We don’t have to give it credibility. But life is very different today. We now live in a world in which words are not a plaything.”
Because of this, sometimes bullying and teasing can get confused. “Teasing is different from bullying. It is natural for people to tease each other, and there is a spectrum of teasing—from lighthearted and in good fun to mean-spirited with the intent to embarrass,” said Lynes, who also clarified that teasing is often situational and can be developmental with kids auditioning humor, learning appropriate behavior, testing boundaries and discovering themselves. “Bullying, however, is an intentional action meant to hurt or show power or dominance over another person. It is consistent and persistent over time. It is often covert, but not always, especially if done by a group.”
Lynes went on to give parents six key steps for dealing with bullying:
Step 1: Identify whether your child is being teased or truly bullied. Remember, a bully is not someone who was unkind to your child once or maybe even twice. A bully is someone who continuously targets your child with the express purpose to cause harm emotionally or physically or both. It is also important in this step to pinpoint how your child is being targeted. Is it online or in person? Is it in the classroom or on the playground? Is it a group or an individual? As parents, we often want to rush to our child’s defense, but try to take a step back and be objective and thoughtful to get a comprehensive look at what exactly is going on.
Step 2: Teach your child about compassion and resiliency. “When we talk about bullying, we often do not talk about ways to help the kids who feel compelled to bully. Typically, kids feel compelled to bully when they don’t feel like they have power over their own existence. Examples include not being allowed to express themselves at home, or they feel bullied themselves, or they’re insecure,” Lynes said. “We also need to teach our kids to not take things as seriously or personally. This is not to say we should not teach our children to stand up for themselves, but rather to not allow the bully to set the narrative.”
Step 3: Encourage your child to stand up for him or herself. “When someone bullies or is mean to your child, it is important that person realizes it is unacceptable and to put that person on notice,” Lynes said. As for your children, it is critical that they have a sense of self-worth, establishes boundaries, and understand that they only need to invite people into their life who make him or her feel good about themselves.
Step 4: Make a game plan. “Making a plan tells a child ‘you’re safe’ and ‘we’ve got your back,’” said Lynes. “But empower your child to handle the situation.”
Step 5: Find a mediator. “It is potentially a mistake when a situation is handled just by the parents or just between adults because the goal of mediation is for both kids to view each other as equal. With that said, it is important kids handle a situation with an adult mediator like a teacher or school counselor. Biologically, moms and dads are going to protect their offspring, so you want someone who does not have a dog in the fight and can help reach a resolution,” Lynes said. Equally important, she warned, “As parents, we may go in there thinking we know the truth and forget about perspective. There are typically three sides to each story, and very rarely will kids be transparent when their parents are present. A good mediator does not say, ‘You did this, and you did this,’ but will instead say, ‘Tell me what happened and help me understand why.’”
Step 6: Reflect on the situation. Lynes expressed the importance of time stamping the event. “You don’t want this to become a trauma. You don’t want your kid permanently impacted by the actions of the other person. We avoid this by checking in regularly. Use a number scale. It does not require wordsmithing. On a scale of zero to ten, ask your child how he or she is feeling.” (Note: The frequency of checking in depends on the child, so do your best to read your child.)
Are You My Type? Or Why Aren’t You More Like Me, by Claudine Wirths
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, by Daniel J. Siegel
The Worry (Less) Book: Feel Strong, Find Calm and Tame Your Anxiety! by Rachel Brian
Be: My Mindfulness Journal, by Wee Society
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky
Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer, and owner of Female IQ (femaleIQ.com).