Students wear T-shirts that promote inclusion and diversity. Credit: Courtesy / NEISD

Parents are usually horrified to find that their child is either a bully or the target of one. The bad news, according to counselors and researchers, is that both roles are equally likely to occur for most kids. The good news is that parents can play a big role in prevention.

By modeling empathy and teaching kids how to operate in the social world, parents can do a lot to keep their kids from bullying others. Adults also can train kids to prevent would-be bullies from gaining power over their emotions and wellbeing.

“Adolescence is an apprenticeship, and we often forget that we must learn to live alongside our neighbors,” said Ian Rivers, a social scientist in the United Kingdom who specializes in the bullying of LGBTQIA youth. “But we need to learn how to live with others.”

Natalie Hierholzer, director of guidance services at North East Independent School District, surveyed the school-based counselors in the district. The general consensus was that bullying, including cyber-bullying, wasn’t limited to a particular group or demographic. It wasn’t even more or less pervasive along demographic boundaries, Hierholzer said. In the social melee of middle school and high school, bullies and victims change roles regularly. 

NEISD students participate in a Unity Conference with messages of inclusion. Credit: Courtesy / NEISD

Looking at both bullies and their targets, Hierholzer sees that kids who have communicative, supportive relationships with their parents are less likely to step into either role. If they are targeted, they are more resilient and able to keep the bully from gaining power.

“The kids who had good relationships with their parents and felt like they had their support probably had less grief and difficulty at school,” Hierholzer said.

Of course, even the best parents don’t always know what their kids are up to at school, or which caustic voices are drowning out years of good advice. As supporting adults in the lives of teens, teachers and counselors have to remain vigilant to spot social problems among students.

Districts define bullying as intimidating or harmful actions and words that interfere with the victim’s sense of safety and ability to learn. Because the definition is limited by the effect of the behavior, victims and their support networks have an important role to play in neutralizing the power of bullies.

“The majority of our problems are just meanness,” Hierholzer said. “Kids are mean, and then [victims] don’t have the skills to cope with it.”

Over the past 10 years, she has seen the nature of bullying change with the rise of technology. With digital anonymity, ordinary interactions intensify, while the social skills built by face-to-face interaction – including resilience – weaken.

In the digital world, bullies may be more comfortable, because they can hide behind user names even as they are in constant contact with the victim via smartphones or computer screens.

On the other hand, science has shown that eye contact increases both confidence and empathy. Without the benefits of eye contact, the social media environment allows for exchanges that might never happen face-to-face. What follows next is what doctors call “imitative behavior.” Kids mimic the demeaning, hurtful things they read online, Hierholzer said.

The cultural climate of devaluing others also has confused the boundaries of what is appropriate speech, according to Rivers. Inflammatory rhetoric circulates on social media, particularly regarding Muslim populations, immigrants, and the LGBTQIA community. Without the discernment to dissect the political discourse, even the extreme words of politicians or public figures can influence adolescents. 

“At a very basic level, if our leaders can say it, then children, their parents, and even the media feel it is okay to air those views,” Rivers said.

Kids also tend to bully along lines of the implicit values modeled in their homes. Rivers considers bullying a “basic manifestation” of cultural values – kids immaturely trying to assert themselves and the values of their tribe. In this respect, parents can help by modeling respectful dialogue in their homes. 

“Bullying is an expression of children’s and young people’s understanding of the world they inhabit, the cultural prejudices we reinforce, and the belief systems we place above others,” Rivers said.

In past interviews with the Rivard Report, principals at two low-income schools, one middle school and one elementary school, said that material possessions played a large role in bullying. In interviews with leaders at more affluent schools, the idea of social exclusion was a more prominent theme. Every counselor and principal interviewed said that physical appearance is one of the primary reasons students are targeted. Such bullying may be incited by jealousy or the bully’s own insecurity. 

At home and in their community, it is likely that kids see those things – material possessions and social connections – as symbols of power or success. Physical appearance is often synonymous with power and prestige in the media, and some students see that message reinforced by adults in their lives. 

Knowing that kids are inundated with images and hormones shaping their body image and sexuality, parents can be intentional in cultivating emotional health at home. 

“You can teach it all day long, but you have to model it,” Hierholzer said. 

Technology also changes the way targets experience bullying. For the target, technology can mask their isolation. Looking at students engrossed in their phones, it’s hard to tell if they are sitting alone by choice or because they are being excluded, Hierholzer said. Parents may see their children constantly on their phone and assume they are interacting with friends, when that might be far from true.

At the same time, because of the constant presence of peers on social media, wounds are never private. Embarrassment, break-ups, and mean remarks are common knowledge before students have time to gather their thoughts and emotions, Hierholzer explained. They don’t have time to process events before they have to respond to curious or meddling peers.

This inability to process emotions, combined with the inability to control the exposure they experience has led to an increase in self-harm, according to Hierholzer. She used to rarely see instances of “cutting,” a compulsive behavior in which students inflict cuts on their bodies. Now, she said, it is prevalent, as students seek to control their worlds.

For these reasons, parents need to talk about feelings and emotions with their teens. While becoming independent, they still need a mature voice to help them navigate that complicated world.

“Sometimes high school kids act like they don’t really want it, but they do,” Hierholzer said.

Parents play a critical role, it’s true. However, for children whose parents do not model empathy at home, schools can teach social-emotional learning (SEL), just as teach academic learning.

“We need educational systems that ensure young people understand that they live in a diverse world,” Rivers said.

The Atlantic recently profiled a high school in Austin where social-emotional learning has taken a front seat.

“SEL – also called whole-child education – is a systematic, evidence-based approach to teaching kids how to achieve goals, understand and manage emotions, build empathy, forge relationships, and make responsible decisions,” Victoria Clayton wrote in The Atlantic.

The article also cited a study that showed students involved in well-implemented SEL programs improved their academic performance by 11%. Hierholzer plans to study more of these best practices and bring them to NEISD.

“There are some school districts [that] have implemented great programs for students and adults,” Hierholzer said.

NEISD is currently combatting the many forms of bullying with a suite of initiatives, mostly at middle and high schools, where bullying is most common.

All comprehensive high schools and many middle schools have student-directed Unity Clubs to get the message of inclusion to their peers. The district sponsors a yearly Unity Conference with students from all traditional high schools participating. This fall, the theme was “Think, Speak, Act” which included a component of “cyber civility” and acceptance of differences.  

All high schools in NEISD strive to achieve the No Place for Hate designation awarded by the Anti-Defamation League, and most have achieved it for several years. This designation is awarded to campuses whose student groups lead campus-wide activities addressing intolerance issues that are most pressing to the students themselves.

The programs are not always implemented evenly, Hierholzer explained, which is why she wants a more embedded, focused approach to social-emotional learning.

“One of the big goals we are still working on is the social-emotional learning in our district,” Hierholzer said. “It really has to be the culture of the school from the top down.”

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.