Raising awareness about bullying

More episodes in the The Vantage Point Podcast

October in National Bullying Prevention Month, so it's a great time to talk about bullying and what parents, teachers, health care providers and community members can do to prevent and stop these behaviors.

Episode Transcript

Lindsey Hendrix: Hi, there. Welcome to The Vantage Point. I’m Lindsey Hendrix. Bullying is an issue that is really prevalent in the United States and we hear the term all of the time, but today we’re going to clarify what bullying is, go over the issue, and talk about some ways that we can prevent bullying, intervene when bullying is happening, and of course, how to identify it. Today we’re with Dr. Alison Pittman who’s a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, and she’s also a pediatric nurse. Welcome.

Alison Pittman: Thank you for having me.

Lindsey Hendrix: Thank you so much for being here. We hear the term bullying all the time, but that can mean a number of things and I think people mistake it for other behavior. So let’s define what bullying is.

Alison Pittman: Sure. So the U.S. Department of Health has a very easy-to-understand, clear definition of what bullying is, and they call it, “An unwanted aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a real or a perceived power imbalance.” So, whether it’s intentional or just perceived as someone trying to have power over me, but it’s unwanted behavior and it’s aggressive in its nature. And one thing that we keep in mind with bullying is it can be physical, things like hitting someone, tripping someone in the hallway. It can be mental, things like teasing someone or just threatening to harm them, spreading rumors about them behind their back is a power behavior, and even leaving kids out of something, of an activity, on purpose to make them feel bad, that can be perceived as bullying.

The third one that we really don’t talk enough about but is more and more prevalent is bullying on social media, which is also called cyberbullying. And these actions can be online bullying through text messages, emails, social media, chat on gaming platforms. And that’s a little bit harder for parents and community members to monitor.

Lindsey Hendrix: And what are some behaviors that we often perceive as bullying that wouldn’t necessarily fall under that definition?

Alison Pittman: That’s why I think that part of the definition, the perceived as a power issue, is really important because there are a lot of times that I think kids may feel like they’re being bullied when the person who is exhibiting that behavior really didn’t intend for it to be. So one important part of that definition is, it needs to be repeated over time. If a child feels excluded from an activity, that may not be the intention of the group that is having the activity. And so the way to really resolve that issue is to talk about it. We encourage kids on their own to help solve their own issues, and so, if someone wants to be involved in a game or an activity, something outside of school, say, “Hey, I’d really like to come.”

And if they’re intentionally being excluded, especially in a repeated manner, then that might be something that’s intentional and can be perceived as a bullying behavior. But that’s one of the most common things we see that was just a misunderstanding. And even adults, we sometimes do that. We exclude someone from an activity unintentionally and it makes that person feel bad. And we teach kids the same thing we teach adults, that just to talk about it and say, “Hey, I felt a little bit excluded. I’d like to be a part of this,” can really help move things forward and not mislabel that behavior as intentional.

Lindsey Hendrix: What are some of the signs that we can look for to see if bullying is occurring with our children or our students?

Alison Pittman: The thing about bullying is it’s often not witnessed by an adult. Kids are pretty smart and they’ll intentionally do this behavior when there aren’t adults around to supervise it. Some of the ways you can know if a child is being bullied, some of them are pretty obvious or things that we think about, expecting to see, like kids who show up with unexplained injuries, their belongings are lost or missing or they’re damaged. But other things are a little bit more subtle, like frequent headaches or stomach aches, fear of going to school, changes in eating habits and sleeping habits. If they try to avoid going to school or lose interest in their schoolwork, losing interest in friendships, those are some of the more subtle things that we see. And occasionally you see very extreme behavior in children that are bullied as a result of that impact it has on their mental health. For example, self-destructive behaviors, self-harm, running away from home or even thoughts or talking about suicide.

Lindsey Hendrix: Oh, my gosh.

Alison Pittman: In the extreme form.

Lindsey Hendrix: Yeah, I mean this is a really, really serious childhood issue. And so, how prevalent is bullying?

Alison Pittman: The Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health have a great website that I can provide some links  for you and your listeners on some of the issues. And one of the things that they found in their studies is that one in five high school students report being bullied at school within the last year. So that’s 20 percent of kids in high school, and in middle school it’s a little bit more prevalent. 22 percent of middle schools report having a bullying problem at least once a week within their school. We have increased awareness about it. We’re doing a lot of campaigns to help children understand what it is, but we still see it as a significant issue.

Lindsey Hendrix: And I noticed they’re citing mostly post-pubescent children.

Alison Pittman: Right.

Lindsey Hendrix: So is this more of a problem after puberty than with the younger elementary school children?

Alison Pittman: We find that middle school is where it peaks a little bit. Elementary school is still an issue, but it becomes more prevalent in middle school age and continues through high school.

Lindsey Hendrix: Mm-hmm. And so, what are some things that parents and teachers can do to help prevent bullying from occurring, or to intervene if they do notice that that’s happening?

Alison Pittman: When we talk about prevention strategies for kids, we really want to realize that one of the first places that we can do the most help is at home. And one of the things that the CD outlines as a big strategy for prevention of bullying is to establish an environment in the home that fosters healthy development. One of the things we see in kids that actually do the bullying is that they perceive, whether it’s intentional or not, that they’re being bullied in their own home. And so, we all need to have a level of power over our children and teach them what’s right and wrong, but if the method of discipline in the home is in some way making the child feel inferior or making them have poor self-esteem, then one of the things we see is that those children can turn around and bully others in order to make themselves feel better. So the environment in the home needs to be one in which the child can feel like they can thrive and develop and learn how to get through life without being belittled or bullied in the home environment.

Lindsey Hendrix: What are some of the risk factors? Obviously, you mentioned the home life for the perpetrators of bullying. What are some risk factors for children who might become victims of a bully?

Alison Pittman: Yeah, that’s one area of the issue that I think hasn’t been studied very well. One thing that we do see is that kids who are in a position of less power for whatever reason are more likely to be bullied, and they’re also more likely to bully others. So that could be because of the home environment and feeling that there’s too much power over themselves or they’re made to feel poorly about themselves in the home environment. But that can also be something that happens at school.

One thing we do see is that children who have some kind of a physical or mental disability are more likely to be bullied, and that’s been consistent over time since we started studying this. But I think any child who… Anyone can be a victim of bullying regardless of their size or their shape or what’s going on in their lives. But those are the two things that we see as most prevalent. Also, kids who aren’t under a lot of supervision or who are in environments where there aren’t adults around who are supervising, are always going to be at an increased risk for bullying.

Lindsey Hendrix: What are some of the strategies then if you know that bullying is happening? How do you intervene?

Alison Pittman: Sure. One thing that we always teach children is, if bullying is occurring, the best thing to do is to go get an adult who can stop the bullying on the spot. We always teach children ways to diffuse the situation. One clear thing is, if a child is feeling bullied, they need to turn around and tell the person who’s doing the bullying to stop in a very clear, calm voice. They can walk away, they can use humor to diffuse the situation. But if those things don’t work or they really feel threatened, they need to go get an adult who can really come in and stop the bullying on the spot. That’s the big thing that we teach children to do.

Lindsey Hendrix: And what would you recommend for the adult who’s called in to that situation?

Alison Pittman: If an adult is approached by a child who says that someone is bullying them, we want to tell them to sit down and talk about what’s going on. Get more information from the child on what the behavior is, what type of bullying is happening, and make a plan to stop the bullying. If the adult is a teacher or a school administrator or a school nurse, they can actually refer both children, both the child that is being bullied and the child who is exhibiting behavior, to a counselor within the school for more conversation that needs to happen. Encouraging a child who is getting repeated bullying behavior directed towards them, encourage them to stay away from wherever the environment is that the bullying is happening and encourage them to stay where there are adults present. We know that bullying often happens when adults and even other large groups of children are not around. So, encourage them to avoid those areas where the bullying might be happening.

Lindsey Hendrix: And if we don’t intervene, what are some of the risks associated with bullying? What are some of the consequences that we could see?

Alison Pittman: Yeah. Here’s where some really powerful research is showing up. Bullying has been shown to be associated with some very lasting serious problems. Children who are bullied have an increased incidence of anxiety and depression. They tend to have feelings of powerlessness and tend to be more isolated from their families and from their peers in school. They’re more likely to have health problems, to have problems with grades in school, and they may even turn around and exhibit that bullying behavior themselves in order to help themselves to feel better.

When we look at youth who bully others, they’re more likely in the future to use drugs and alcohol, to have problems in school in terms of their grades, and to even experience violence later in life in their late childhood or adulthood.

Lindsey Hendrix: So we talked about intervention. Usually you’re going to see this happening at school or near school, because I don’t think these bullies are hanging out with their victims after school or… During sporting events you might see it, but where do health care professionals come in? We’re at the Health Science Center and we’re educating future health care professionals. What is their role in identifying bullying and then intervening?

Alison Pittman: Well, at the College of Nursing, I teach in our pediatric nursing courses and we really teach our student nurses to really identify the different types of bullying and how to identify it so that we can at least make referrals to the appropriate school officials and counselors and areas in the community where help can be sought. One of the toughest things about bullying is, we know that bullying can be physical, like pushing and hitting. We know that it can be psychological, and some of it can be name-calling, it can be leaving kids out on purpose. Excluding children from meaningful activities intentionally is a form of bullying and teasing. But now we’re seeing a lot more of what we call cyberbullying, which is bullying online, and that’s much harder for parents and for school officials to keep tabs on. So we teach our future health professionals about those different types of bullying and what we, as health care providers, and what parents and community members can do to help kids identify when that occurs. The big thing with cyberbullying is, a lot of times kids don’t tell their parents and family members what’s going on. And so we really teach kids, number one, we teach parents to really keep tabs on what your kids are doing online. Make sure that you know their passwords, that you could monitor their online activity. They’re minors and we have every right as parents to make sure that what they’re seeing and what they’re getting from others online is safe and healthy. The other thing is, if a child gets some kind of a threat or a bullying-type behavior online, that we teach kids to tell a parent, tell a grown-up what’s happening, because anytime they get something online that makes them feel unsafe or scared, they need to tell a grown-up.

Lindsey Hendrix: Yeah. And the online activity, it could be social media, it can be-

Alison Pittman: A text message.

Lindsey Hendrix: … text messaging, online gaming.

Alison Pittman: Yes. Chatting and-

Lindsey Hendrix: Chatting. Right? All that kind of stuff.

Alison Pittman: Yeah. And all that’s really hard to monitor. And so, I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate some of the pay-for programs out there that help you monitor your kid’s activity. I think a lot of it comes from just a great conversation between parent and child to say, “Listen, I need to know what you’re doing online and to make sure that you’re safe, and if there’s ever anything that happens that makes you feel uncomfortable or threatened, I want you to tell me.” We have every right to know what our kids are seeing and doing online.

Lindsey Hendrix: Yeah. And as a parent, I mean, you just want the best for your child. You want to make their environment as comfortable as possible, and that includes the internet environment, right?

Alison Pittman: Right. And it’s a scary new frontier for us as parents and teachers, and a lot of it is difficult to monitor, but we can do it. And I think a healthy conversation is a great first step.

Lindsey Hendrix: Is there any good news with bullying? Have we seen any trends? I know there’s a lot of awareness campaigns going on out there. I feel like generations past bullying was a much bigger problem than it is now. Is there any positive trends?

Alison Pittman: Yeah, there are. When we see some of the campaigns, and by the way the CDC has a great resource packet for schools and community members that I really strongly encourage, that helps outline some educational strategies for preventing bullying and youth violence. And one of the things we see is, when we implement some of these programs, children have more confidence in standing up for themselves. They know what to do if they see bullying happen. One of the big things that we teach kids is the bullying may not be happening to you, you may see it happening to someone else and it’s perfectly okay to step in and say, “Hey, that’s not okay, you’re bullying this person. If you don’t stop, I’m going to go get a grown-up.” And all that awareness and those educational campaigns have shown that children feel more confidence. We don’t know necessarily, except for on a case-by-case basis, if bullying is decreasing in a specific environment. But we do see across the board is kids know how to identify it better, they know what to do in case it happens. And so, that’s definitely some good news.

Lindsey Hendrix: That is good news. And so we’ll be sure to link to those resources in the show notes so everybody can go get educated and share.

Alison Pittman: It’s all free. And it really helps kids and school officials in terms of solving the problem, knowing how to communicate. There’s little scripts on what to say when you feel like you don’t know what to say for younger kids. It has some great resources.

Lindsey Hendrix: Yeah. And I think, too, it’s interesting when you’re dealing with young children, the… I hate to say fragile, but they are a little bit fragile psychologically, and so I’m sure confronting the bully, you have to do so very gently. That person is not a bad person. That kid is not a bad person. But they do need help.

Alison Pittman: Yeah. One of the things we really emphasize is, we don’t want to label a child as a bully. They are a child who is exhibiting bullying behavior, and one of the things we see almost across the board is there’s almost always an underlying reason. They’re not being cruel just to be cruel. There’s something going on in their life that’s making them want to exhibit that behavior towards others to help themselves feel better. And so a lot of times, if we can identify what that thing is and help them get some help for that underlying issue, they’re less likely to exhibit that behavior.

Lindsey Hendrix: And the earlier the better, I’m sure.

Alison Pittman: Absolutely. Kids develop their sense of self and their self-esteem as early as 3 years old. And so if there’s anything that’s affecting that, we’ve got to stop that before it develops into a more serious problem.

Lindsey Hendrix: Do you have any stories from the field and your time as a pediatric nurse encountering this issue?

Alison Pittman: Oh, gosh, I have a lot. We send our nursing students to school nurses who work in our community here and they come back with all kinds of stories. I think schools are one of the most common places where bullying tends to occur. And kids, one of the biggest things that I think we can make a difference as community members and health care providers, is just helping kids to understand that they need to tell somebody. There was a nursing student that came back and told me that there was an elementary school kid, third grade or fourth grade, that every day when he went out to recess, there was another child who would try to get him to fight him, and he would just try to walk away. And every day the child would hit this other child on the back of the head as he’s walking away and trying to avoid the fight. And he would always make sure that there were no other adults around when he did it.

And this kid put up with this for weeks and never told anybody. Well, the nursing student happened to… Maybe they’re not as obvious of an adult presence. And so they witnessed it and took the child aside and realized that he’d been putting up with this behavior for weeks and hadn’t told anybody. And so I think when you see something, you need to say something. Talk to that child in an environment that takes them away from the presence of others, and really help them to understand that that behavior is not okay and that we can do something to stop it. And they did. They sent him to a counselor, then they drew the other child away from class and talked to a counselor and really intervened and made that behavior stop.

Lindsey Hendrix: That’s great.

Alison Pittman: Yeah. It really does make a difference just to talk about it.

Lindsey Hendrix: Yeah. And so I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to identify it. You don’t know if anybody has done anything to address this issue. And it’s interesting that that had been going on for weeks and the child hadn’t talked to anybody. And you wonder how much longer would it have gone on if that student hadn’t intervened?

Alison Pittman: I know. And any time that a power differential happens and the person is not getting the reaction that they want, that behavior can escalate. And so it really needs to be stopped even when it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much harm yet, an intervention needs to happen.

Lindsey Hendrix: Is there anything I missed? Is there more information you want to share?

Alison Pittman: I think the only other thing that I would probably maybe emphasize a little bit more is why children bully. You know, people, especially if you find out that your child is the one who is exhibiting this behavior, we really as parents and teachers and community members, we think, “Why would this person do this type of behavior?” And we do have some research on this that tells us… We talked about the child is being bullied at home or even at school by someone else and so they turn around and will bully others. But other things that show up in the research is, the child is getting some kind of attention for bullying. The child may have low self-esteem or not feel like they’re getting good social connections, and so they choose the wrong kind of behavior in interacting with others in order to get that attention. You know, negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Sometimes it’s just simple self-esteem. It makes the person feel better, the child feel better than the person being bullied, and so they feel superior in some way. But sometimes, and I think we overlook this reason, is that the child lacks the knowledge and has not really been taught or understands how to socialize and how to act appropriately towards others. And the fact, just a simple… And we see this a lot more in schools, just a simple message that we need to be kind in our interactions with others, that making fun of others and teasing and even physical contact is not appropriate. It may be funny and make people laugh and so people tend to do it more, but that’s not an appropriate reaction and that’s not appropriate behavior. So, just helping kids understand what’s appropriate behavior socially and what’s not can go a long way for a lot of these kids that are exhibiting bullying behavior.

Lindsey Hendrix: Yeah. Teaching the bystanders not to react in those kinds of positive ways. Don’t laugh at it. Don’t give it attention.

Alison Pittman: Right.

Lindsey Hendrix: Reinforce the fact that it’s not the right thing. And I think as parents, if you find out that your child is exhibiting this type of behavior, I’m sure the initial reaction a lot of times is denial or, “My child can’t do that. I mean, they come from a great household,” all of that kind of stuff. So, what would you encourage parents to do if they find out that their child is exhibiting that type of behavior?

Alison Pittman: That’s a great question. I think if you are told by a school official or even the parent of another child, “Hey, your kid was doing this out on the playground or on our street,” being a very active listener and saying, “Tell me more about what you’re saying, what you witnessed.” And then trying not to be reactive, but instead to listen and ponder and understand the situation fully before really reacting in a way towards your child or towards… Sometimes the messenger is the person that we react to the most.

So really getting a good idea and saying, “Let me talk to my child about this,” and really getting their side of the story and kind of looking at it as, “This is not a label on my child that says that they are a bully or that they’re bad,” or, there’s always some underlying reason. And so really working with your child and perhaps a mental health professional or even the counselor at your school to figure out what the underlying reason for the behavior is. We’re a team and sometimes when a school official comes to a parent and says, “Hey, your child’s exhibiting this behavior,” you feel like you’re on the opposing sides of a battle. And it’s really not.

We’re on the same team, which is the team that wants all of our children, including the child who’s exhibiting that behavior, to have a happy, healthy life, and trying to look at it as a team that’s going to make things better rather than two sides against each other can really help and move things along in a positive way.

Lindsey Hendrix: That’s a great message. And it takes a village.

Alison Pittman: Absolutely. And I think particularly single parents or parents who’ve moved to a new area and don’t have a lot of resources can feel really overwhelmed when things like that happen. So please don’t be afraid to reach out. There are officials within the school and school counselors that that’s their whole job, is to help kids through crises like this. And parents, don’t be afraid to reach out for those resources within your school, your child’s school, within your community, to help out. And there’s a lot of support groups for parents, particularly single parents, that can really help parents work through some of those emotions that we can’t help but have when we get this news about our child.

Lindsey Hendrix: Yeah, exactly. So this goes so far into our society. It’s not just a problem of the children. This is our community, these are our future leaders-

Alison Pittman: That’s right. Yeah.

Lindsey Hendrix: … and the future of America. So we need to make sure that they’re healthy.

Alison Pittman: Absolutely.

Lindsey Hendrix: Well, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. This is such an important message, such an important issue. I think you’ve provided lots and lots of information that we’re going to go home and read up on, and just be more aware of what’s going on in our children’s lives and the children in our neighborhood and in the schools.

Alison Pittman: Yeah, I appreciate you highlighting this. I feel it’s a very important topic that we need to revisit frequently and I appreciate you having me.

Lindsey Hendrix: Awesome. Thanks so much. Thank you everybody for listening to The Vantage Point.