A Psychologist’s View on the Bullying Phenomenon

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ModernMom interviewed bullying expert Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D., a psychologist, author, educator and CEO of New York City Conflict Resolution Services. His new website rubberduckyposse.com (see link below) provides helpful tools and information about bullying for parents and kids. Here are some important pieces of information you should know about bullying and how it affects your kids.

Why is bullying so common in schools?

Bullying is common in school for a number of reasons. First, because bullying is common everywhere human beings gather in groups. Second, it’s my opinion that schools are a complicated social environment. While we often rely on parents to teach proper social models, the fact is that kids spend the majority of time in school, which is where social behavior is happening. Schools have shied away from the task of teaching civilized, pro-social behavior or do it in a half hearted way. It’s time for schools to make a dedicated effort to influence children to be positively social, kind and civilized.

What should I do if my child is being bullied?

If your child complains about bullying, first ask the “w” questions — who, what, where, when. Parents have the unfortunate task of having to discriminate between aggressive play and aggression. Parents must also take into account the sensitivity and temperament of the child. At least half of the time, parents merely need to let a child vent and provide support in the form of
“I don’t understand why John would say that to you. It should be easy for them to see what a great kid you are. I certainly think so.” If the child is looking for a further explanation: “You know sometimes kids mistreat other kids because they are very unhappy. Maybe there is something going on in his (or her life) that is making them very sad.” These kinds of supportive tasks usually work very well with younger kids (ten and under).

What about older kids?

As kids get older and relationships get more complicated, it is important to keep open the lines of communication. Do more listening than talking. Help your child check to see if the people he or she is looking for reinforcement from are a good match for them. For instance, junior high school-aged kids gravitate towards kids that are very different from they are. As pre-teen kids look for models to shape their identities, they fixate on kids who are very high up on the school social ladder. Chances are the more shy, sensitive kid is going to be ignored or scapegoated by the kids who are the “movers and shakers” of their social community. This doesn’t mean that shy kids won’t be accepted or appreciated, it just means that parents should have a good enough handle on their kids to be able to point out that their values and traits are not going be a good match with everyone. It is important to find people with similar ways of thinking and then whoever else doesn’t like them or can’t relate to them — that’s their loss.

My child is a bully. What do I do?

Since, you are the person who knows your child best, what observations can you contribute to your understanding? Is your child depressed or do they struggle with attention problems? Bullying is linked strongly to aggression and frustration, and children who are depressed or challenged with attention problems can have difficulties socializing in school. What is the discipline like around your child? Children who are treated aggressively tend to me more aggressive, and tend to model aggressive behavior. Is one of your other kids bullying him or her? High conflict family dynamics (like divorce and custody problems) can bring on bullying behavior.

What if talking to my child doesn’t help?

If you have tried talking to your child about the importance of “using words” to solve problems, and the importance of being kind, and it hasn’t worked, perhaps a family volunteer effort might have some impact. Join an organization that does charitable work so your child can be reinforced for positive social behavior. Volunteer for a trash pick-up, or a school drive, or to help the elderly. If you see that your child is not responsive to any of this, consider speaking to your pediatrician to get a recommendation for a child behavior specialist like a psychologist or social worker. All the best approaches to take with any child behavioral problem need to be multi-faceted. Look at the environment, your child’s temperament (yes, your child can be born with a tendency toward aggressive behavior), the conflict resolution model at home, and your child’s every day behavior.

Explain the “No Freak Out Promise”

The No Freak Out Promise is something I started in my child and teen psychology practice years ago. It is a contract that says, “you kids can tell me anything and I promise not to yell at you, make you feel like dirt, or throw a tantrum where I say things that hurt your esteem.” Parents and kids sign the contract as a means of encouraging the parents to be the best place to come to when kids need help solving problems.

About the Author

Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D. is a forensic and clinical psychologist whose practice has focused on kids and families for the last twenty five years. He is the author of more than a dozen books on child and teen psychology, parenting, divorce, anger management and conflict resolution. Peter is a frequent guest on major television shows and has put together The Rubber Ducky Posse to help educate kids parents and schools about bullying. You can download free materials, parenting eBooks and the Coping With Bullies Manual at www.rubberduckyposse.com

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