For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy

Dr. Richard Gallagher on Bullying: What, Why, How, and How Parents and Kids Can Help

by Richard Gallagher, PhD
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Is there a remedy for bullying? How can parents help children protect themselves? The NYU Child Study Center's third in its series of parenting talks at New York-area schools addressed one of childhood's most intractable problems, further complicated in recent years by perpetrators' use of the Internet and cell phones to attack their victims. The talks are given by the CSC's Dr. Richard Gallagher, and this one was held at P.S. 183 on East 66th St. in Manhattan, on December 14, 2010.

You can watch videos of the talk, which has been divided into six short segments, above.

Section 1: What do we mean by teasing and bullying?
Section 2: When does teasing turn into bullying? What is bullying?
Section 3: What is the impact of bullying, and how to bullies operate?
Section 4: Why is bullying such a persistent problem?
Section 5: What can parents and schools do?
Section 6: How can we help kids cope?

Below is an edited transcript of the question and answer portion of Dr. Gallagher's talk with parents who were in attendance.

Dr. Richard Gallagher: One thing about kids in general is that being different is a concern. It has more to do with behavior than it does with appearance. Kids want other kids to be similar as far as behavior. There are kids who are involved with activities outside what's considered typical and which might cause other kids to view them as "different." For parents, it will be important to help those children learn to stand up to some of the statements or even questions other kids will have. 

Let's pick activities that are very different than the usual stereotypes, for example, boys who are involved with dance, specifically ballet. This is an activity that might be the object of some questioning in the early grades. Around third grade or later the questioning could shift to teasing. Boys who participate in something like ballet may need to get some input from their parents. This is a perfectly respectable and honored activity. It is a very athletic activity. Explain to kids how  the activity in question—in this case ballet—is valuable, so that the child knows how to present it to other children.

Girls who are tomboys may have that same issue of questioning or teasing. Differences are a problem, but again they are primarily problems in regard to behavior. Hopefully the school and home environments say that we will tolerate and accept differences. It is important to respect people's variations on what we do.

Question: Does bullying have to do with children's personalities? Some kids tend to take charge or boss other kids around, and other kids tend to be more passive. Why is that?

Dr. G.: Sometimes it is the personality. We all have different temperaments. In social situations, some of us are vocal and active, while others are quiet and observant.  However, the setting will play a role as well. The atmosphere should not allow a child to be in control all of the time. The atmosphere should give kids a chance to take turns being in charge. That's often what happens with the kids who are described as "popular." For example, these kids will often try to control or determine what people wear. They might try to control what sports teams other people like. What happens with these popular kids is that they are in control and other kids do honor them. Kids are just like other people. Kids like respect. So if you are in charge and in control a lot of times it is because of what is happening around you and how the other kids are responding.

Q: When my child was young I would try to show him how the other child would feel if he was being bullied or teased.

Dr. G.: Empathy is very important.  Children who are more empathic, who are able to understand how another child feels, will engage in less teasing and bullying.  Situations that foster more empathy are also situations in which less bullying and teasing occur.  That is why bullying occurs more often in groups. This is because  a group situation diminishes the individual's responsibility. If there are three kids ganging up on somebody, it's more likely the three of them will think, I didn't really do it. I just followed along. It's very common for kids to say that they didn't start it. This avoidance of responsibility is less likely if it is an individual doing the bullying. If it is 10 kids on one kid it is a free-for-all. When kids see fewer aspects of the victim's reaction they are more likely to continue to engage in bullying behavior. This is believed to be what happens with cyberbullying.

When kids are involved in cyberbullying they are teasing and taunting one another, but they may not necessarily see the victim. As a result they are less likely to empathize with the victim. So certainly information that says,  "How would you feel had that happened to you?" is very helpful for kids.

Q: Have you seen kids who are anxious about bullying occurring even though it hasn't? I call it anticipatory stress. How would you deal with that?

Dr. G.: That is definitely the case and that can happen.  Children are very reactive to information they hear in the news. If we talk about anxiety for example, kids are more anxious about the local news than they are about horror movies. Kids hear the news and they think, that actually can happen. They are not very good when it comes to statistics. If kids hear that one person was bullied so much that the person became suicidal, kids will think that that has happened a lot, especially if the story is repeated many times. They also think that it is very likely to happen to them. So kids can become anxious when they hear a lot of information about bullying going around.

It is important that kids realize these unfortunate circumstances do occur, but parents need to help the kids understand more clearly. An event that occurs in the United States gets a lot of attention—the event might even get a lot of repetitions on the news—but in reality it does not happen very often.

Take for example a college student who committed suicide after his roommate disclosed his sexual orientation, we would need to tell a child that there are millions of college students and that this happened to one of them. This is one instance with a high level of intensity and a high level of shame that lead to such a tragic event. This doesn't happen to everybody. Kids need to learn a little more about the probability of these things happening. Kids think if it happens once, it's going to happen, and it's definitely going to happen to me.

Boy with a tear in his eye

Q: Would you agree that there are bullies, and there are victims, but there is also this large group of bystanders? If so, what strategies can you offer for encouraging those bystanders to get involved in these situations?

Dr. G.: What has been tried in a number of settings—and I have to give credit to my sister-in-law, who is a principal at a school in Long Island—she worked on an idea to get these bystanders involved. Instead of talking about bystanders, they decided to talk about them as "upstanders": Stand up for other kids. What she has talked about with kids at her school is to not be a bystander and just go along with things. Often times there are many more bystanders than bullies. So if these bystanders say "Hey, don't do that, that's not right," then it is much less likely to occur. If some of the popular kids stand up, then what happens is the atmosphere becomes one where bullying is less likely to occur. A lot of responsibility is given to other kids. It's not just, it's the bully and the bully is the bad kid and the other kid is the victim. Instead everyone is responsible for turning this around.

Q: How do you get the kids to stand up for themselves?

Dr. G.: You should endorse it. I think what happens and what has occurred in a lot of circumstances is that the problem hasn't been talked about directly. It has not been recognized. This situation isn't really new. What is new is that people are saying, we understand that bullying has an impact on children. It has an impact on a fairly large minority of children. Some of these kids are feeling very anxious about being at school. We don't want that to happen.

Now that the problem has been recognized we need to start talking about it with kids and help them realize this is a process that can be talked about. There are resources to turn to, and those resources are not necessarily only going to get kids into trouble, they are resources designed to help kids solve problems.

Different kinds of assemblies, discussions in class, posters on the wall, will begin to point things out. We all respond to different kinds of behavioral cues around us. I live in the suburbs, so this is an example I pay attention to, on every street the speed limit is posted. That is a behavioral cue, stating this is what kind of behavior is expected. Elementary school teachers, often up through the fifth grade, have the rules posted. We raise our hands to talk, we treat one another respectfully, we are quiet at certain times—these are some examples. There might be posters that would say, stand up for your friends and stand up for others. If the lesson is also demonstrated in classrooms, and in assemblies, standing up becomes part of the atmosphere. Kids start to endorse it and recognize that standing up for one another can and should be done.

Q: Are there societies that are less prone to bullying and societies that are more prone to bullying?

Dr. G.: It is an unfortunate situation. The societies that are less prone to this are societies that are very uniform. So these kinds of concerns, in terms of societies as a whole, were less of an issue in European countries until probably the last two decades. There wasn't as much immigration in European countries. Everybody was pretty similar with regard to ethnic background.

Diverse communities are settings where it is more likely to happen. In terms of sociology, if you look at aggression and violence that happens between neighborhoods, it's usually on the boundaries of neighborhoods with two different groups. Variety actually makes it more likely to happen. Within the U.S. I think we are ahead of the game in terms of recognizing that our society is pretty varied and that we need to be very tolerant. We have examples, I don't want to get too involved in politics, but in France there are issues that have to do with women wearing head scarfs. They might not let women wear these anymore in public settings. In the U.S. that would be outrageous. We don't link clothing to behavior. We have a different, more accepting way of doing things. We may actually be a little more prone to this as a society, but we also have a lot of diversity policies that are put into place in the workplace, and in schools.

Q: This has come up recently with my 12 year old boy. It's the question of going to the teacher about bullying. Can you comment on the efficacy of that? Should you focus on teaching the child to deal with the bullying instead of depending on the teacher to solve the problem?

Dr. G.: My suggestion would actually involve multiple steps. I do believe that it is appropriate for kids to turn to school authorities and other people to help out. I also believe that they should learn to cope with it as well. There should be a policy and plan that helps kids know what to do. The school administration should have a policy, the community should have a policy, and there should be specific consequences in place. Within those policies, children should know that they can turn to the adults for help. And, the adults should recognize that retaliation for a child who reports problems is very possible. A policy and plan for that should be put into place as well.  

I think kids should feel comfortable going to teachers about bullying. I think kids should trust and feel comfortable that the teachers will follow through. Kids should feel that the atmosphere of the school is one that takes bullying seriously, and just doesn't pass it off. The school shouldn't just say that bullying and teasing are  typical, don't be concerned. They should be recognized as typical, but the school still has protections in place.  On the other hand, it's important that kids learn to cope, because teachers and administration even at their best are not going to be able to stop it all.

Q: My child was the victim of some bullying, and when he told me about it I wanted to go to the teacher, but my child did not want the teacher involved. In some instances the bully is really popular, so the child doesn't want the teacher involved because then the other kids will know he got this popular kid in trouble.  What would you suggest in this situation?

Dr. G.: Unfortunately in this instance if the kid does end up going to the authority, the other kids might turn against him. You have to be careful as a parent because if you go and try to work it out with the teacher or coach, it's not necessarily kept a secret. This could cause your kid to be the object of more teasing and ridicule. The other kids might say to your kid, "Come on, you told on this guy who is the most popular kid in the group? Why did you do that?" I don't think there is a blanket answer. I think you have to look at each situation carefully and try to determine whether this is something that is going to happen one time, or is it a persistent pattern. If your kid is having lots of trouble coping with a persistent pattern then that is something you may need to take a multiple step approach with.

Think about dealing with the group. Help your kid to think about not just confronting the person who did it, but confronting the bystanders. Tell him to ask the other kids, hey, I thought you were my friend? Why did you let that happen to me? That wasn't good. This guy does that to everybody. Why do we keep letting him do that? Sometimes the victims can form a little coalition. They can agree to start fighting back in some fashion. Hopefully that can be done in a way that is assertive without getting into aggression.

Parents should also think about telling a teacher or the administration not always in the context that something needs to be done, but also just to make them aware of what is going on. That way the school can be made aware of certain situations that are occurring. It is hard for school personnel to observe all of the actions among children. In most schools, in the lunch room for example, there may be three adults supervising a couple hundred children. When school personnel know when and where teasing and bullying are occurring, they can develop a plan to address flare-ups. 

Q: My son was afraid of bullying and it took us a while, but we realized he didn't understand what bullying meant. He thought it meant physically hurting. He was so afraid that there could be someone at school who would physically hurt him.

Dr. G.: I think that's a great example of how kids can get things confused. They confuse "hot button" topics that get talked about a lot. They wonder what is going to happen to them. They might not know what different actions "bullying" means, and that can cause them unnecessary anxiety.

Q: How do you tease out the difference between teasing your child may be experiencing and bullying? How do you know if they are experiencing something that is bullying or of concern?

Dr. G.: What might help you understand your children's reactions to different things would be to say, did that bother you? Were your feelings hurt by that? Does it happen a lot? Did you feel bad for a long time? Also check in with the kids and ask them if they feel scared about something that is going on. If the kid is reporting that they are scared, that is important.

Q: How do you know if your child is being affected by bullying or teasing that has been going on if they seem to not be bothered? As a parent do you have to worry about whether they are internalizing this and they don't know how to communicate it? At what point would a kid blow up because it's been x number weeks or months?

Dr. G.: With any kind of significant concerns you have with your child, you keep watching them to see if there are any changes in how they are acting. Look for significant changes in their mood. If kids are keeping things to themselves it will begin to look like something is different. Their behavior or enthusiasm will be affected.

Q: What advice do you have for parents who have younger kids, who are on the more sensitive side, to help them develop coping skills in advance of the prime bullying years?

Dr. G.: If the child has siblings there might be circumstances that present lessons. You could say to the kid I want you to really work hard to change your physical reaction. Start working on what the kid does. We are going to work on you not getting tearful. Have the kid work really hard to think about something else. I am not going to stay focused on that word. I am going to think about bananas or something silly. Help them develop distractions or other means of coping. Help them see what they can do about controlling their emotions. The reflections of their emotions are something a bully may pick up on and antagonize. With kids who are sensitive, parents, often fathers, will tell them to  toughen up, like they could just turn that tough front on. Some kids need some guidance on how to do that. You want the kid to toughen up, but let's figure out how you can do that. It looked like you really got upset about that. Let's think about how we can get you to be less upset.

Q: Other mothers from my son's class told me that my son is being bullied, but I was not aware of it. Apparently the moms have all heard about a particular kid in the class bullying some of the other kids. I asked my son about it, but he said it hasn't bothered him. Should I be concerned?

Dr. G: This sounds like a situation where people should be alerted and on the look out. In this circumstance much of what happens is based on how people react. Your son is saying he doesn't let it get to him. Maybe he doesn't let this kid control him. The other kids may be more sensitive. The other kids may see "Joe" is being told this same thing, and we hate it when the bully does that to us. The act is occurring, but it may bother one child and not the other. However, if a number of children are reporting this, teachers should be informed and school authorities should be made aware so they can watch and react appropriately. It may be a class in which lessons on tolerance need to be increased. 

This series of six parenting talks by Dr. Richard Gallagher is possible thanks to the generosity of Sarah and David Fiszel who, through their gift, wanted to bring valuable parenting advice from Dr. Gallagher and the NYU Child Study Center to a broader audience.

The Fiszels' support enables these talks to reach hundreds of parents who attend the live presentations at area schools. Their donation has also made it possible to feature video of each talk on the CSC's Web site, www.aboutourkids.org, which will help us to reach thousands more parents and caregivers across the country.

Dr. Gallagher is an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU and director of special projects at the Child Study Center's Institute for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Behavior Disorders. He is an expert in the treatment of selective mutism as well as organizational skills deficits.