Bullying and Problem Solving

Bullying includes a wide variety of behaviors, but all involve a person or a group repeatedly trying to harm someone who is weaker or more vulnerable. It can involve direct attacks (such as hitting, threatening or intimidating, maliciously teasing and taunting, name-calling, making sexual remarks, and stealing or damaging belongings) or more subtle, indirect attacks (such as spreading rumors or encouraging others to reject or exclude someone). Almost 30 percent of teens in the United States (or over 5.7 million) are estimated to be involved in bullying as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both.  Bullying can start at any age and can continue through high school.

Latest Research on Bullying

The American Psychological Association has recently published two new studies about bullying.

In a study just released this summer, researchers discovered that children and adolescents who lack social problem-solving skills are more at risk of becoming bullies, victims or both than those who don’t have these difficulties. They found that boys bully more than girls, and bullies and victims both have poor social problem-solving skills. More than anything else, poor academic performance predicts those who will bully.

In another study released last December, researchers reported that students who watch as their peers endure the verbal or physical abuses of another student could become as psychologically distressed, if not more so, by the events than the victims themselves.

Developing positive problem-solving skills seems to be a crucial part of avoiding bullying. Unfortunately, we are not born with these skills, nor are they taught in schools. Youth must rely on the adults around them – parents, teachers, coaches, etc. – to teach them how to solve their problems. This is a skill that will serve them well their entire lives and is well worth the time investment.

Teaching Problem Solving Skills

Below are the essential steps for solving problems. We have written them as the parent working with the child to solve the problems, which is something to do with elementary and middle school students. Encourage them to use these steps in small decisions so that by the time they are faced with a big decision they are used to the process. As the child enters high school, the parents should remind the youth of these steps, but allow the teen to work through these steps on their own.

  • Properly identify the problem. Teach youth to clearly understand their difficulty and what specifically is distressing them.  Ask them: “How is your current situation different from how you would like it to be?” Encourage them to approach the process with a positive attitude, viewing the situation as an opportunity to improve things.
  • Generate several alternative solutions. Try sitting down with the teenager and brainstorming a list of possible solutions to the given situation. Ask the child what they have tried before in similar situations, and what outcomes they experienced. Ask them to predict likely consequences, both positive and negative, for each possibility. Encourage the teen to not limit themselves, but to come up with as many options as possible even if they are unrealistic, because this type of creative process may help generate even better solutions.
  • Make a decision. Once you have made a list of options together, help the teen narrow them down. For each option, consider how realistic it is, how likely the teen would be to implement it, and the potential obstacles. Ask the child, “Which option accomplishes your goals and has the fewest drawbacks?” Then let the teen choose the option they would like to try.
  • Implement and verify your solution. Encourage the teen to implement their solution, give it their best effort and see how it works. Check back frequently to process how the solution is or isn’t working, and help them modify it as necessary. The goal here is for kids to learn to feel confident about solving their own problems.

These steps will work in a wide variety of situations, but hopefully by giving children a firm understanding of how to solve their problems, we will be also mitigating their risk of bullying. However, even with the best intentions, some children still fall prey to this prevalent problem. Here are some tips for parents on how to handle bullying situations.

Tips for Parents to Prevent Bullying

Communication is essential in almost every aspect of raising a child, and this issue is no exception. Even if your child has had no experience with bullying – as victim or perpetrator – do not assume that all will continue to be well. We must take the time to define what bullying is, because it is often not recognized when it’s among friends. Our children must realize that bullying is any behavior that hurts another person. Youth may understand that name calling is bullying, but believe that gossiping is ok. Teens may recognize that hitting someone is bullying, but think that tripping someone is just a joke. Along with explaining the definition of bullying, we should clearly define the consequences of those actions. Encourage their empathy by talking through how a bullying victim feels and how it may impact their life. Discuss the possible ramifications of getting in trouble for bullying, including school suspension.

Tips for Parents if Your Child is a Bullying Victim

If your child comes to you because a bully is bothering him, do not ignore the problem. It’s hard to know what to do in these situations, but while children do need to learn how to work things out on their own, being victimized by a bully should not be tolerated. If the problem is ignored, your child could be hurt, his self-esteem could be wounded, or he could become a bully himself.

Here are five steps you can take if your child is having problems with a bully:

  1. Believe what your child tells you. This is an important first step and will help your child trust that you are able to help him with his problem. Accept what he has to say at face value by attentively listening to them without interruption.
  2. Let your child know that he is not alone. Most children have to deal with some type of bullying behavior at one time or another. Reassure your child that he is not the problem.
  3. If your child is being threatened in a physical or illegal way at school, report the problem. Your child may not want you to do this, but violence cannot be tolerated. You need to model assertive behavior by alerting those in charge where the bullying is taking place.
  4. Teach your child assertive behavior and how to ignore routine teasing. Let them know it is okay to say ‘No.’ Sometimes even friends bully, so letting your child know they can be true to their own feelings and say ‘no’ can go a long way.
  5. Encourage your child not to give in to a bully. Giving up possessions or giving into a bully in any way encourages the bully to continue. Identify and role-play ways for your child to respond to a bully – showing assertive but not aggressive behavior.

Tips for Parents if Your Child is a Bully

If you find out that your child is bullying others, you will need to actively stop this behavior. Here are seven steps you can take:

  • Make it clear to your child that you take bullying seriously and that you will not tolerate this behavior.
  • Develop clear and consistent rules within your family for your children’s behavior.
  • Praise and reinforce your children for following rules and use non-physical, non-hostile consequences for rule violations.
  • Spend more time with your child and carefully supervise and monitor his or her activities. Find out who your child’s friends are, and how and where they spend free time.
  • Build on your child’s talents by encouraging him or her to get involved in pro-social activities (such as clubs, music lessons, non-violent sports).
  • Share your concerns with your child’s teacher, counselor, and/or principal. Work together to send clear messages to your child that the bullying must stop.
  • If you and/or your child need additional help, talk with a school counselor and/or mental health professional.

Additional Resources

  • www.cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/dvp.htm – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site contains a number of fact sheets and publications on youth violence, with links to other valuable resources. It also includes the truth and myths about youth violence, kids’ stories, things you can do to avoid violence, and a reading list for teens.
  • www.ericfacility.net/ericdigests/ed407154.html – A concise summary of research on bullying and effective programs to prevent bullying in schools.
  • www.ncfy.com/expreng.pdf – This booklet for teens offers great tips for handling the tough times inevitable in high school.

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