02 Aug The Unsuspected Bully
By Laurel Bishop
I let it happen to my kid because I didn’t recognize it.
Throughout sixth grade, my son sat at his desk, the brunt of his teacher’s jokes and insults. The worst humiliation was the teacher’s direction to the other students to “not be dumb like Cody”. In retrospect, I realize how the teacher’s remarks emboldened Cody’s classmates to mimic the abuse.
How did I miss that?
According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior that is intended to control or harm others, exists in a relationship in which there is a real or perceived imbalance of power and strength, and is repeated or can be repeated over time. The teacher’s behavior and inherent power over the classroom influenced the other children—teaching them that demeaning Cody was acceptable behavior.
Our children interact daily with adults in roles of authority: teachers, sports coaches, and more.Most adults are dedicated to our children, and talented in their ability to help our youth grow and improve. How grateful we should be for their positive influence on our children!
Occasionally however, there’s a bad apple in the bunch.
In rare instances, adults become a bully when they use their “position of authority to ridicule and humiliate a child, respond with sarcasm, be overly critical or punitive, or use facial expressions that discredit or reflect non-acceptance.”(Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.)
When these actions occur in front of other children, the implication can signal approval for similar bullying behavior. For Cody, the ridicule centered on his lack of athletic ability and delayed social skills.
Many youth are reluctant to report being a victim of bullying and, when they do tell their parents, most parents advise their child to talk to their teacher or adult in charge for assistance. Cody complained about what was happening in his classroom, but I failed to help; I dismissed his complaints as trouble adjusting to a new school rather than further investigating his claims.
What should I have done, and what can you do when you believe your child may be encountering an adult bully?
Listen, Really Listen
Listen to what your child is telling you. Ask questions. Have an in-depth conversation with your child about how things are going at school or with extracurricular activities. If your child isn’t talking, watch for the subtle signs of being a victim: “noticeably more withdrawn, angry, depressed, anxious, fearful; refuses to go to school, hates school, grades drop; noticeable changes in sleeping, eating, or other routines . . . ; risky behaviors, child suddenly ‘getting in trouble’; loss of confidence, friends—self esteem drops.”
After identifying the source of the problem and gaining an understanding of your child’s perspective, assure your child that you will help. Armed with the information you have, perhaps it’s time to discuss the situation with the person causing your child distress.
You may want to be the fierce mama bear protecting your cub, but losing control is not beneficial to resolving the issue. Rachel McCumber, the parent of a special needs child who has faced this issue recommends approaching conversations about bullying “in a rationale manner with very little emotion. Emotion causes reactions. Human beings, including teachers, administrators and principals, will react to your emotions and everyone will be less effective.” Although difficult, a productive discussion will most likely occur if you maintain a non-accusatory tone of voice and a calm demeanor.
After advocating for your child, watch for repercussions. The result of a tough conversation with a teacher, youth leader, or coach can be additional humiliation, harsher grading standards, or reduced playing time on a team. If your efforts prove unsuccessful and the bullying behavior continues, it could be time to remove your child from the adult’s influence. You can help them cope with minor injustices, but a serious imbalance of power and a pattern of bullying can only be detrimental to your child.
A Last Resort
Your last resort may be a new team, a new class or even a new school for your child. Before making the jump to remove your child from the situation, make sure you have exhausted resources such as school administrators or program officials. If your concerns seem to fall on deaf ears, Timothy Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, cautioned “the adults who are denying the problem, who are not marshaling the resources in schools to respond to the problem,” are contributing to the dilemma. If those in charge decline to assist you, consider moving your child to a new situation.
Although he finished sixth grade and moved on to other great middle school teachers, Cody’s previous classmates continued the bullying behavior they had learned. At Cody’s request, our family followed the advice of professional educators and a psychologist, moving him to a school outside the district. Starting in a fresh environment provided Cody the opportunity to find friends and acceptance. His high school years have been free of bullying.
No parent envisions his or her child in this position. Being a pro-active parent, having open conversations with your child, and being willing to intervene are steps every parent can take to help circumvent this devastating form of bullying.