Everybody knows that there is a bully epidemic in schools across the country – even in our own yeshivos. Bullying affects the whole community: the bullies, the victims, and the bystanders. Because of this growing phenomenon, I have brought together a group of experts to give perspective and advice on the issue. As the director of SOS (Strategies of Optimal Success), I see children, teenagers, and adults struggling with bully issues. Michal Geffner (MG), LMSW, is a respected social worker who has worked in schools and in private practice in New Jersey and Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. Miriam Maimon (MM) is the Hebrew principal at Bais Yaakov D’Rav Meir in Brooklyn, New York. And, Rabbi Anonymous (RA) is the principal of one of the largest boys yeshivos in Lakewood, NJ. Let’s see what they have to say about the bully epidemic.
When is bullying an isolated incident and when is it considered a serious situation in which parents and teachers should become involved?
Miriam Maimon (MM): Every incident of bullying should be taken seriously. If a child approaches an adult to relate an incident that caused her pain, at the very least, her feelings should be validated and she should be reassured that the adults in her life are sympathetic and understanding and will do their utmost to help. This does not mean that every act calls for punishment. Often, dialogue with an adult mediator, such as the school guidance counselor, can provide both the bully and the victim with a greater understanding of each other’s needs and valuable tools to achieve their goals in a non-aggressive manner.
Rabbi Anonymous (RA): All incidents of bullying are serious. If a bully is identified, a parent should get involved in a three prong solution:
The bully. Warn him and clearly explain what he will not be allowed to continue.
The victim. Explain to him when and how to inform an adult. He also needs specific training on how to respond.
Bystanders. Educate the bystanders that they are also a part of the problem. Their apathy (or worse) is enabling the bully to accomplish his goals.
Recently, my son has become more apprehensive about going to school. I suspect that he may be the target of bullying. Are there any signs I should look for to determine if my child is being bullied?
Rifka Schonfeld (RS): Yes, there are some key warning signs of bullying:
Returns home from school with torn, damaged, or missing clothing
Seems afraid of going to school
Suddenly begins to do poorly in school
Complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches, or other illnesses
Has trouble sleeping or frequent bad dreams
Appears anxious or suffers from low self-esteem
Michal Geffner (MG): Yes, if your child is apprehensive, it could be due to bullying. If your child seems sad and sullen, starts having regressive behavior such as bedwetting, thumb sucking, or is having a hard time sleeping and separating it could be due to bullying. Try to have an open conversation with your children in which you let them know they can say whatever they want. Be careful, though, to not suggest reasons for not wanting to go to school. Allow it to come from them.
RA: Children need to feel a sense of security in order to open up to their parents about social issues. Parents need to listen to their children describe their day. If a child shows signs of fear or extreme apprehensions, parents should be attentive to get a true sense of what is going on their child’s life. (The Brisker Rav was known to constantly know what all his children were doing.)
MM: Any drastic change in behavior should catch our attention. If attempts at communication fall flat, perhaps a friend would be able to shed some light on the situation. Call the parents of a friend and ask her to engage her child in a conversation and try to find out what’s going on. Bullies often use scare tactics to discourage their victims from telling adults what’s happening. “No one’s going to believe you anyway” or “Now you’re gonna go home and tell your mommy, right?” are just some examples. A friend who witnessed something may be less frightened to share.
Are there any differences in the type of bullying that occurs among boys and the type of bullying that occurs among girls?
MG: Girls are usually more secretive about the bullying than boys are. Girls will most likely do it quietly making it harder for teachers to pick up on it while it may be easier for teachers to see what boys are doing. In general, boys also tend to be more physically aggressive when they bully.
RS: Girls use relationships to bully each other. This starts as early as preschool, when a girl realizes the supremacy of “I won’t be your friend anymore.” Relationships are of the utmost importance to girls in elementary and high school. They are the measure girls use to evaluate their own worth. By the third grade, the esteem and friendship of peers is nearly as important to girls as that of their families, and is more important than the esteem of their teachers. If someone threatens a girl with removing her friendship, she is using the most powerful weapon in her arsenal. Whereas bullying by boys is often addressed and condemned, social bullying by girls is usually brushed off as cruel but normal social interactions.
Do you have any advice on what my child can do if he is the target of bullying?
MG: No child ever deserves to be bullied. A child should understand this and be empowered to stand up for himself. Children should involve teachers and parents. There are also professionals who can help teach your child and help teach you how to avoid bullying.
RS: Talk to your child. Say that you are concerned and would like to help. You can ask direct questions such as, “Are there any kids at school who treat you meanly?” Or indirect questions such as, “Are there any kids at school who you really don’t like? Why?” Broaching the topic is the first step towards prevention.
Listen to your child. Allow your child to share his fears and frustrations.
Keep your emotions in check. Of course, you need to empathize with your child, but if you become overly emotional, your child will hesitate before talking to you about it again. Stay calm so that you can act as a supportive figure in your child’s life.
Talk to the staff at your child’s school. Set up an appointment and explain that you are concerned. Ask questions about what you can do and what measures the school can take to prevent bullying. If you are not comfortable talking to your child’s teacher, make an appointment with a principal or the school’s guidance counselor.
Teach your child to walk with confidence. If your child appears confident and walks away from the situation, he is signaling to the bully that the bully cannot hurt him.
Encourage other friendships. Promote true friendships by telling your child to invite other children for play dates or study dates.
MM: The teacher should be spoken to. Most bullying occurs when teachers are not around. The teacher may not even be aware of it. Speaking to the teacher will make her aware and on the lookout for possible signs of bullying. Additionally, it can prevent some of the problem – for example, the teacher can now avoid allowing these two children out of the room at the same time or pairing them up for a project or outing…
I recently received a disturbing call from my son’s Rebbe in which the Rebbe describes my son as a bully. As a parent, what can I do to stop my son from behaving in this destructive manner?
RA: Please, please for the sake of your son don’t sugar coat the issue. Every bully is hurting inside and is in emotional pain. Discuss with your son the great damage that true bullying does and model examples of how small inconsequential acts over time can be truly damaging. (In the few incidents of true bullying I have seen, there has been tremendous long-term damage to the bullied self-esteem and mental health.) Because bullying can be so subtle, the bully might claim, “I’m doing nothing.” He must be made aware of what he is doing and why it will not be tolerated.
MM: The bullying cycle is quite complicated and usually recurring. We can boost our kids, but ultimately, we cannot change the other kid. Getting the school involved can be beneficial, especially if the school has the resources and the personnel to tackle the situation. We’d like to believe that all our students really want to be nice – they just need some guidance sometimes. Once the situation is tackled by a professional, and the bully starts working on herself, she gets feedback; she feels good about her new mode of behavior and is encouraged. The bullying cycle stops, and believe it or not, we’ve had cases where the bully and the victim actually became close friends!