09 Sep, 2021

Bullying is a serious topic that can have devastating consequences on a child’s life. Therefore, it is not to be underestimated. However, discussing it may sound scary. Our goal here at Pure Freedom is not to instill fear. Instead, we seek to provide valuable information and resources to both parents and school professionals, empowering them to be a positive influence in the lives of students. Our mission is for youth to achieve optimal health, in all areas of their lives. Because bullying might sometimes stand in the way to success, what can we do to help students thrive? How can we stop the cycle of bullying?

It all starts with developing a clear understanding of what bullying is, how it takes place, and who it affects.

What is bullying?

The website StopBullying.gov defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems”.

Bullying is different from teasing. The idea of power imbalance lies at the root of bullying. The victim is either unable to defend themselves or the abuser thinks that.

Additionally, bullying can take several forms, such as:

  • Physical bullying:

It involves any behavior such as pushing, kicking, or spitting on someone. Understandably, this is the most visible form of bullying, but it is also the least common. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, it is involved in only 2 out of 5 cases of bullying

  • Verbal bullying:

Language is another form of bullying and may include anything from criticizing, calling someone names, or yelling at them with the intention to intimidate. 

  • Relational bullying:

This form of bullying is most common among girls. Relational bullying may involve spreading rumors about someone as well as excluding them from group conversations or events. 

  • Cyberbullying:

As its name implies, cyberbullying is a form of bullying that happens either online or through texts. Because it can be used easily and anonymously, it is very prevalent among the youth. Accordingly, Pure Freedom takes the topic of digital safety very seriously and addresses it in its School Policy Action Toolkit.

  • Prejudicial:

Last but not least, prejudicial bullying can take any and all forms of bullying cited above and is rooted in the hate of differences such as racial differences, sexual orientation, socioeconomic backgrounds, religion, disability, fashion, hygiene, and so on.

Who is most affected?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20% of students ages 12-18 admitted that they were bullied. That corresponds to one out of five students. The report shows that:

  • Bullying appears to be slightly more common in rural areas than in urban ones
  • Girls experience bullying more than boys (27% of girls and 17% of boys). Interestingly, the type of bullying also differs according to gender. While boys experience more physical bullying, girls are more likely to fall prey to relational bullying involving the spread of rumors. In the same way, cyberbullying affects girls (21%) more than boys (7%).
  • And students in lower grades are more likely to face bullying. Typically, bullying is more widespread in middle schools than in high schools. 

The students who are more at risk of being bullied tend to be:

  • Intelligent, talented, or creative:

These assets can stir feelings of inferiority and jealousy in others. Bullies may also try to take advantage of smart students by forcing them to do their homework in their place, for example.

  • Shy, anxious, or lacking self-confidence:

Fear and unease can, unfortunately, send a signal that the student is easy prey. This can make any existing mental issues worse, creating a vicious cycle.

  • Isolated:

Having no friends can increase someone’s risk of being bullied, as they are seen as easy targets. In the same way, this student might in turn be rejected by potential friends due to them fearing being targeted as well.

  • Different:

Once again, distinctive characteristics can make someone stand out more, thus attracting negative attention from bullies.

  • Popular:

Inversely, popularity can also be a cause of bullying as other students might feel like they are a threat to their own social standing.

Sometimes, a student might experience bullying not because of a characteristic that he or she bears but because of a characteristic of a sibling or close friend of theirs who is also being bullied. Ultimately, it is important to note that victims may be or become bullies themselves.

The consequences of bullying:

Every student reacts differently to bullying. Nonetheless, esearch shows that bullying can negatively affect:

  • Emotional health, leading to low levels of self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Academic performance, leading to lower grades and a fear of going to school
  • Relationships with friends and family
  • Physical health (not just as a consequence of physical bullying but also because physical and emotional health are tightly linked to each other)

One 2018 study analyzing the relationship between bullying, sleep, and health in a large adolescent sample concluded that bullying can lead to decreased amount and quality of sleep in teenagers. In turn, those issues put them at an increased risk of developing emotional distress and mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.

So what can we do?

It is encouraging to know that instances of bullying have gone down between 2005 and 2017. Indeed, the percentage of students ages 12-18 who reported being abused in those years went from 29% to 20%. As a parent, teacher, school counselor, or administrator, you are sitting in the front row of change. You can take action by:

  • Understanding that bullying is not always obvious:

    It makes sense, as in order to continue the bullying, the abuser needs to be somewhat discreet. This makes it even more important for you to look for warning signs such as a student exhibiting unexplained injuries, having difficulty concentrating and sleeping, declining grades, missing school, losing friends, and others. 

  • Having open communication:

    This includes both asking questions and being a good listener. This should be a continued effort, as trust sometimes takes time to be earned. Remember that most victims of bullying do not report the abuse. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 46% of students do so. Victims of bullying may feel ashamed of not being able to defend themselves or they may believe that no one can help them, including adults. However, some bullies don’t need to be told “stop” twice. Sometimes, simply stating that you see what they are doing and reprimanding their behavior is enough for them to leave their victim alone.

  • Empower students to stand up for themselves.

    Instill self-confidence by letting them know that they are stronger than they think, and use positive affirmations to make them feel valued. Because bullies tend to target students who look shy and unable to defend themselves, self-confidence can act as a protective shield.

  • Encourage students to make friends.

    You know the saying “stronger together”. Unsurprisingly, this applies to the school environment as well. A student who is well surrounded is less likely to get bullied because it takes more courage to attack someone 

  • Having a strong group of friends can prevent a student from being bullied because attacking someone who is well-surrounded takes more courage. You can try to foster new friendships by setting group activities in class or having students who are unfamiliar with one another sit next to each other.
  • Set up clear expectations when in school and use positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior

    Sometimes, bullies are victims themselves and don’t believe they can act differently. By encouraging and acknowledging good behavior, it can help them move toward a more positive and healthy mindset. 

  • Talk to parents, school administrators, or other authorities if need be, according to the gravity of the situation.

    Last but not least, know that you won’t be able to solve all cases of bullying by yourself. If you see something, don’t hesitate to involve other adults who could help. Before contacting parents, make sure to know the right reporting procedures in your school. In some instances, parents might be shocked to learn that their child has been acting like a bully. To avoid any dispute between them and you, you may inform your supervisor of your intention to contact them first.

Bullying can leave unresolved trauma in the life of a student. This is why the Pure Freedom program uses a trauma-informed approach to teaching. In addition to being sensitive to those issues, we aim to equip students to recognize the signs of unhealthy friendships and dating relationships, as well as how to prevent and report abuse. 

We partner with over 40 schools in Northern Missouri each year. If you would like to learn more about us, our educators, and how to request a speaker for your school, visit our “about us” page. 

Written by Elodie Takamiya.