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4 Common-Sense Tips to Stop Bullying (And Why They Won’t Work)

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We can all agree that school bullying is a terrible phenomenon. It leads to self-esteem issues, learning problems, and as we’ve all learned, sometimes a parent’s worst nightmare. And while we’re all for anti-bullying policies, legislation, and support, can anything really be done to keep kids — particularly queers — safe in schools?

Yes. But it’s an imperfect solution. And gee whiz, it might require some real work!

Alan E. Kazdin (a former American Psychological Association president and current Yale child psychiatry professor) and Carlo Rotella (director of American studies at Boston College) have a fantastic guide that’s not just about stopping bullies and preventing new victims, but understanding who these people are, and why certain kids act this way.

We know a few things about bullies as a group. They often have an impulsive temperament, don’t get enough parental supervision, and have had significant exposure to models of aggressive behavior in the home (harsh punishment, domestic violence) and media (TV and video games that model bullying). Most bullies are boys, and male bullies use physical violence more often than female ones, but girls do it, too. Bullies are often more confident, fearless, and socially astute than we tend to assume (the old notion of a bully as a cowardly cretin with low self-esteem seems to be inaccurate), and they are often quite popular in the lower grades. But they tend to lose popularity as school progresses, become socially isolated, and have poor academic outcomes. They are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol as they enter adolescence and to engage in criminal behavior in later years.

But:

knowing all that has not helped much in coming up with ways to reduce or eliminate bullying.

So where does bullying happen?

Context, not the individual attributes of bullies or their victims, is the key to prevention. Bullying between children happens in places where adults cannot easily detect it—in the halls, at recess, at the bus stop, waiting in lines. Adults typically do not know about such bullying unless there are flagrant and very frequent episodes or they happen to see it with their own eyes, which is relatively rare (teachers detect only about 4 percent of all incidents), since a competent bully chooses opportunities precisely to exploit a lack of adult supervision.

When students see bullying, they tend not to report it. Surveys indicate that they usually believe nothing would be done if they did tell about what they saw. Bear in mind that about 85 percent of bullying happens in front of others, usually peers. The event is institutionally invisible, but there are typically witnesses.

Okay. So what are parents and their kids doing now about bullies? There seem to be four “common wisdom” theories about dealing with them. And they’re all imperfect, and some entirely useless: Stand up to a bully; ignore him; have the victim’s parents call the bully’s parents; call the school and dump the responsibility on teachers. Indeed, none of these is likely to cure bullying.

So what can be done? It’s time to get methodological.

Kazdin and Rotella’s four-pronged strategy includes: “Find out what’s going on” (sometimes parents don’t even know their kids are being targeted); “Be careful not to blame the child for being bullied” (because really, the victim likely wasn’t “asking for it”); “Problem-solve with your child” but don’t just tell him what to do (state the problem, discuss solutions like telling a teacher, weigh the cons); “Help mobilize an effective strategy for dealing with bullying, which means involving the entire school, including administration, teachers, and peers” (especially since other kids are almost certainly being bullied as well).

Is this an overnight solution? Certainly not. But bullying isn’t an overnight problem, either. Through whatever mix of nurture and nature, certain kids are groomed to become bullies, while other kids develop perceived weaknesses that make them more susceptible than peers.

What we’re most encouraged by, though, is all the renewed attention bullying is receiving. These things come and go in waves; preventing bullying may not be such a hot, newsworthy topic next year. But it’s not because the problem has disappeared. It’s just gone underground, where bullying thrives.