The recent tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince has once again catapulted the topic of bullying to the front and center of our attention. It’s not only parents, schools and counselors who need to be aware of the devastating behavior of kids to one another. We all need to be informed of the seriousness of bullying behavior because kids cannot tackle this problem on their own.
I’m so fortunate to have a dear friend and colleague who is an expert in the field of bullying. SuEllen Fried has co-authored three books on bullying, beginning in 1996 with Bullies & Victims, three years before Columbine. Her second book, also co-authored with her daughter, Paula Fried, PhD, Bullies, Targets & Witnesses, was published in 2003. Banishing Bullying Behavior, co-authored with Blanche Sosland, Phd was released at the end of 2009.
In 2002 SuEllen founded BullySafeUSA, a program she has delivered to over 85,000 students in 36 states, as well as to thousands of educators and parents. She is passionate about empowering children to recognize that the pain they are causing for each other is not just bullying; it is a form of peer to peer abuse. She has appeared on the TODAY Show, MSNBC, and was featured on A & E, Bill Kurtis Reports, Bullied to Death.
I’m delighted to share with you a recent conversation I had with SuEllen Fried.
Joanne: How could the tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince happen?
SuEllen: It can happen when school personnel are not on high alert and vigilant about intervening before the bullying becomes physical. It is essential to take a report from a parent very seriously and never to assume that a target will be able to handle peer abuse without adult intervention.
Joanne: What factors allow such a devastating event to occur?
SuEllen: Verbal bullying, including cyberbullying, is frequently dismissed as benign and inconsequential. Never assume that students can slough off verbal torment. The perennial saying, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you” is a lie. I’m trying to instill a new saying: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can break your heart.” The scars of the soul take a lot longer to heal than the scars of the flesh.
Joanne: How devastating is cyberbullying?
SuEllen: Cyberbullying is treacherous and has taken bullying to a new level for a number of reasons. 1) Your home is no longer a sanctuary, a haven of safety from the abuse. Young people are bonded to their technology and the cyberbullying is ubiquitous. 2) The anonymity leaves the target helpless to defend themselves. Along with the anonymity is the limitless number of people who have received lies about you that you cannot refute. 3) You feel completely isolated and hopeless about having any support. 4) Students will say things via technology that they would not have the courage to say directly. A new word, “bullycied” — children who commit suicide because of bullying — has entered our vocabulary, and cyberbullying has been associated with many suicides.
Joanne: Are certain kids who become targets destined to remain targets?
SuEllen: Bullies shop around for the most vulnerable targets who give the greatest reward to their bulliers. Tears give them a tremendous sense of power. Physical indications of cowering empower bulliers. Strategies include everything from being assertive, telling an adult who will intervene, using humor, ignoring with spirit, distracting the bully, staying with a group, convincing yourself that you will not allow someone else to determine your status, even changing schools. Kids need to find a defense that fits their comfort level and keep trying until they find a solution. Kids say that bulliers are basically cowards, have problems at home, crave attention and have low self-esteem.
Joanne: What can parents do to keep their kids from being a target or a bully?
SuEllen: Model the behavior you want your children to have. If you are empathetic and kind, handle your anger appropriately, stand up for yourself skillfully and respect yourself and others, you will send a powerful message to your children. Martial arts can be very helpful because of the body language that kids develop. Helping your child find a skill or talent they can pursue can also lead to a group of new friends.
Joanne: How can parents spot when their child is being bullied?
SuEllen: The first indication is when a child doesn’t want to go to school. Other clues are physical complaints such as headaches and stomach aches. Changes in behavior such as becoming more withdrawn or more aggressive and eating disorders could be signs of distress.
Joanne: What is necessary for schools and communities to do to help over time?
SuEllen: We must create a community of compassion, caring and kindness. We need to counter the barrage of mean-spiritedness that is so pervasive — vulgar language, trash talking, violent messages on TV, movies, music, video games. There must be consequences for inappropriate behavior. If we start earlier and consistently try to reach problemed children, perhaps we won’t have to resort to litigating and criminalizing bullying behavior. My hope is that we will put more energy into prevention.