Bullying is Systemic

We need to stop treating bullying like a weed.

It is not all our fault. We look at bullying like we do most problematic behaviors: isolated, intolerable, and inexcusable. Horror story after story will emerge about a teenager who took her own life because she could no longer handle her peers' taunts and jeers. Rightfully, our senses of justice are poised to confront the contorted-faced bully who drove her to an impossibly tragic decision.

But if you parent a teenager, it may shock you to realize that the face you seek is upstairs between two headphones. Bullying is not just your teen's issue; Bullying is an adult issue. Like garden weeds, bullying can only thrive if the grass is unhealthy and untended. The context in which the bully thrives is responsible for preventing and responding to bullies as is the bully responsible for her or his actions. Want to stop bullying? You cannot isolate a bully like a weed. One will pop up where the other was pulled. What does this tell us about bullying behaviors?

Bullying is compounded indifference.

In some way, we all have or currently do play a role in bullying. You may have bullied someone who bullied someone who bullied someone else. But bullying can only be such because the victim feels alone, isolated without the support that she or he needs. Bullying thrives in contexts driven by competition over collaboration. Bullying blossoms in atmospheres where the struggling individual is cloaked by feelings of inadequacy.  Adolescent bullying is a pathological attempt to cope with feeling invisible.  I remember playing the role of the bullied and the bully. Even though I fit almost every category that put me at the top of the social hierarchy, certain characteristics about me made me an easy target. So, I in turn played the bully role. 

What would have prevented the bullying cycle?

I also remember sitting at a lunch table while a football coach and a few cheerleaders sat a few feet down from me laughing at my choice of shoes for the day. I don't even remember what I was wearing, but I do remember that coach calling me a f*g, a word I would never use. 

What would have made the difference? The adults. The adults make the difference between a context that allows bullying behaviors to thrive and one that prevents bullying as a destructive force. 

What can parents do about bullying?

Come up with a prevention plan that works for your family. Schools will not always be able to respond to bullying behaviors, and the best response emerges from families. 

Parents need to band together to ask schools to introduce positve bullying prevention programs, like this one, formed out of the devastation of a horrible tragedy. Students at Virginia Tech decided that the best way to prevent bullying was to introduce school-wide strategies that asked students to identify positive attributes of their peers and then pay-it-forward throughout the day. Over time, the program develops as its own reward. 

There will always be a need for a comprehensive response to bullying.

But having worked for years with the toughest teens (kids expelled for acts of violence, drugs, and gang affiliation), and having those teens weep in front of me behind closed doors, I've learned that every action tells a story. The best way to deal with a bully is not with a punch or a pink slip, but with an invitation. Prevention is key.  

It can be difficult to know where to start. If you need some help, I work with families to support their teen who is being bullied. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington