Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On teasing and bullying

I've been researching this question for an online class I'm designing on High Functioning Autism/Asperger's, and found what I've learned to be applicable to bright, quirky, socially awkward children in general--and their parents. Here's what I've written up.

Studies suggest that sensitive, socially awkward children are particularly vulnerable to persistent teasing--of the sort that people now classify as bullying. Being academically gifted, further setting the child apart from his classmates, may make matters even worse.

Encourage your child to talk about the situation; just talking and being heard may help him feel better. It will also build trust between the two of you, and give you a sense of the issues.

In advising your child, you can avoid making him more self-conscious about his differences by shifting the spotlight from him to his bullies. Explain to him what motivates them: bullies thrive on getting a reaction; those who tease him are trying to make him cry.

Then empower your child. Explain that while we can’t control bullies, we can control our reactions to them and how often we cross their paths.

Help your child brainstorm ways to avoid the bullies. Perhaps there are particular places at school where bullies hang out, or specific groups of kids that he could avoid spending time with. It may turn out that some of the children he considers his friends are among those who tease him. In this case, you need to convince him that friends don’t make their friends feel bad, and that if his friends won’t stop teasing, or stand up for him when other friends tease him, he needs to start looking for new friends.

Advise you child, as well, on how to best to react to teasing. As bullying researchers have repeatedly found, ignoring the perpetrator doesn’t work; it will just make him try harder to get a reaction. Instead, advise you child to give a different reaction from that which the bully is seeking.

Effective responses include the direct, honest, retort: “Why are you saying cruel things about me when you know it upsets me?” or “It hurts my feelings when you tell people that I suck my thumb when I don’t.” Alternatively one can direct the insult back at the bully: “I know, it must really bother you that I dress this way,” or “Does making me feel terrible about myself make you feel better?"

After presenting these options to your child, help him brainstorm a handful of ready responses that he is comfortable delivering. Whichever ones he chooses, it’s crucial that he speak his lines with confidence. He should enunciate them clearly in a sufficiently loud voice, standing up straight and looking directly into the eyes of the bully. Message delivered, he shouldn’t wait around for a reaction, but calmly walk away.

Many socially awkward children will find it difficult to deliver their lines with sufficient confidence. Role playing the interaction at home will help them tremendously. Start by having your child play the bully, modeling his chosen response yourself. Then change roles and practice until your child shows the requisite confidence.

Some victims of bullying may be too self-consciousness to share their plight with their parents. If you suspect that your child is a victim and are unable to encourage him to talk about it, it’s still important to act: persistent teasing and bullying can have profound, long-term effects on mood and self-esteem. Many reluctant children are ultimately relieved when things are brought out into the open; the more so, of course, once they’re actually dealt with.

If your child is reluctant to admit to being bullied, present your advice in general terms. You might say that all children have to deal with teasing, and here are some things you learned to say when you yourself were teased.

Besides advising your child, there is much you can do without involving him directly. Telling the teacher and principal right away is crucial; don’t assume that school officials are necessarily aware of the situation. Request ways to minimize the opportunities for bullying—e.g., by having recess or cafeteria aides keep a close eye on your child, or by changing his classroom seating arrangements, assigning him to a different group during group activities, or allowing him to work independently instead of in a group.

You can also request that school officials convene meetings with the bullies and their parents. Many schools have official anti-bullying protocols. Many parents have no idea that their children have bullied others and are eager to do what they can to set things right.

Finally, it’s important to address the root causes of your child’s victimization. Some awkward children unwittingly irritate others in ways that invite teasing. Discretely observe your child during play dates or other interactions and see if he provokes others through behaviors that are under his control to alter. If so, give him constructive feedback later on, perhaps role playing specific interactions.

The most effective antidote to bullying, however, is building self confidence. Show your child love and understanding. Help him develop his talents and focus on his positive qualities. Help him improve his social skills through regular play dates, carefully chosen extra-curricular activities, and/or social skills classes. Help him find true friends by inviting over like-minded peers who share his quirks, or kind, socially responsible classmates who will stand up for him when others tease him. By helping your child develop his social self-confidence, you not only reduce his susceptibility to bullying, but strengthen his ability to cope with all sorts of other social challenges that life eventually presents.


Beth said...

Katherine -- what if your child is being bullied by a teacher? Yes, it happens.

Katharine Beals said...

Good point (and good grief!!!) --none of the expert advice I encountered deals with that one. Do you have advice, Beth? Please share!

Beth said...

I know the experts don't deal with it. It's a big problem. My daughter's public school had an anti-bullying program to deal with student bullies, but when my daughter was bullied by her teacher, there wasn't much I could do about it.

I eventually got my daughter out of the bully's class, and then we left the public school.

I can recommend a book:

Bad Teachers, by Guy Strickland

It's a huge blind spot in the schools. Teachers are more powerful than the worst student bully, and they can do a lot of damage to a child's confidence and sense of herself.

Beth said...

from an article by Dr. Alan McEvoy called "Teachers who Bully Students: Patterns and Policy Implications":

Perhaps the most troubling finding of this investigation is perceived institutional
collusion through inaction when bullying incidents are known. The apparent absence
of policies and procedures to address the problem should give us pause. The many
caring educators who must tend to the casualties of abusive colleagues whose egregious
conduct goes unchecked can only place a serious damper on school climate and morale.
Sadly, in the absence of an effective institutional response to bullying, a small number
of bullies can do enormous harm.

found here:


lgm said...

I'm surprised "It hurts my feellings..." is viewed as being effective in view of the bully's lack of empathy. imhe The most effective antidote to verbal teasing is the deadpan "so?", then shifting of attention away from the perp. If the perp insists on follow up, maintain emotional control, use humor, and move the kid on.

From our experiences and some of what I've read on-line, the child bully is looking for a target who won't fight back.http://www.bullyonline.org/schoolbully/child.htm

The most effective antidote to the physical preteen bully is to get him alone and deliver an intimidating messsage OR get up from his attack without losing emotional control, throw the one effective punch, and deliver the line "don't mess with me".

The most effective way to deal with the school is to calmly inform them that you intend to file a police report if there is a second instance of physical bullying or, if a dr's visit was necessary after the first instance, that you'll be filing a police report and you'll be in small claims to recoup your expenses. They are liable. Sometimes, this has to be done, as the family has refused psych/social services and the school can't tell you that the family refused.

cranberry said...

I would agree that with physical bullying, parents should file a police report. If it's a serious incident, such as armed assault, or an attack which leaves bruises, the first time. Reporting attacks to school administrators will require them to take action. In our state, if a child has a behavioral IEP, the school administration may downplay repeated physical assaults.

Girls can bully in a way which leaves only psychological bruises. I recommend the books _Odd Girl Out_, and _Queen Bees and Wannabees_. In this type of bullying, the perpetrators are often the top of the school's social pyramid.

Cranberry said...

Ack, rereading my comment. If the bully has a behavioral IEP, there are protections built into our state law which can make it hard to discipline the child.

As my children aren't on the spectrum, I would say that I'm not enthusiastic about the current theory that bullied children "provoke" the bullies. To me, that comes too close to blaming the victim. I do think that one can say that a bully will look for victims. Social coaching may make a particular child less likely to be the selected victim (although I don't think anyone has researched that), but it won't stop the bully from bullying someone.

Beth said...

Cranberry, I'm glad you mentioned "blaming the victim." I agree that too much of Katherine's post sounded that way.

For instance, this paragraph:

Then empower your child. Explain that while we can’t control bullies, we can control our reactions to them and how often we cross their paths.

There's nothing "empowering" about telling a child who is being bullied that "we can't control bullies". We'd better control the bullies, or their victims will have no chance.

Bullies, and criminals in general, look for the soft target, the easy mark. While there's something to be said for teaching our children not to be the easy mark, we also need to protect them by fighting back against the bullies.

Katharine Beals said...

"Blame the victim" has become such a powerful societal taboo in America that anything that appears to come close is now automatically suspect. In particular, blaming the victim is frequently conflated with informing the victim about effective and ineffective coping strategies.

Taken too far, this fear of blaming victims would spell the end of, say, social skills classes for those with social disabilities, which many people on the autistic spectrum have found helpful. One could, of course, ask "why should these people have to take classes that teach them how to conform to society, when it's society that should be adjusting to them?"

Both perspectives, of course, have their merits: indeed, it's one of the themes of this blog that the schools are making students make adjustments they shouldn't be making, instead of making the necessary adjustments themselves.

To take another arena where victims are involved, consider my paragraph rewritten as follows: "While we can't control our metabolisms, we can control what and how much we eat and what and how much we do for exercise."

Is it wrong to convey this message to those who might benefit from hearing it?

Beth said...

Katherine, as always, I'm looking for the middle ground here.

On the one hand, I'm certainly not opposed to teaching social skills to kids with or without autism. I'm not against teaching kids how to avoid being victims of bullies or criminals, either.

On the other hand, the phrase "blame the victim" was invented for very good reasons. There's a tendency in our society (and others?) to blame the person with the least power (so for instance, women get blamed for rape.) It is right to protest against this.

In the case of children, young children in particular are very likely to feel that they caused bad things to happen to them. It's part of the normal narcissistic phase of childhood. It's very important for adults to help children understand that they don't need to feel guilty and ashamed just because someone else abused them.

lgm said...

If the preteen bully is on behavior IEP or is classified emotionally disturbed, the issue of appropriate placement needs to be addressed.

If the attack was physical the fastest way to get action is to go up the ladder..jump from principal to superintendent to school board meeting. Bring photos of the injuries and the torn clothes and demand that a safe learning environment be immediately established. Do not send the student back to school until it's done, and demand a homebound tutor in the meantime. This gets a 1:1 aide for the bully and the district has time to get it's ducks in order for a placement change and the parents have some time to come to grips with reality. Small claims court should still be used for restitution.

If the attacks are ongoing verbal, document, document, document. The ones my children have endured have all been the case where an ED child interpreted normal civility as a 'be my very best friend' gesture, and became upset in the long term that my child didn't ditch his friends immediateley for them exclusively. Insist that the perp receive social skills training and that your child's class placement be changed until that happens. What usually happens here is that the IEP'd student will get the social skills training, but the school can't tell you that. The school will tell you that observations were done and the student were interviewed seperately, and the students and supervising adults will be told that they are not to be within 10 feet of each other. The counselor will find a good lunch table for the child that lacks social skills (which they should have done on entry to middle school). Your child's placement won't be moved, but peace will descend immediately.

lgm said...

The "Blaming the Victim" scenario ignores the Rule of Law. The law of the land applies on school grounds (with the exception of schools located on military bases which may be different in some respects). No one has the right to pick themselves out a target and fire away. The sooner the perp and his family learn this, the better.

If the perp needs education on tolerance, respect for others, diversity, and civility as well as social skills and emotional control - that's fine with me. I'd prioritize that ahead of the 3Rs, because I want to live in a civilization that doesn't view such things a mugging the elderly, beating women, abusing the defenseless, and picking on the most recent immigrant as normal. Perhaps Kindergarten should drop the academics and go back to teaching these lessons.

lgm said...

On the tenured teacher bully..the school is likely aware but has hands tied in the immediate. As with any bully, speak up and fight back. Utilizing the school pyscholgist's services is also very very effective as you are laying a paper trail that the school board will take notice of. Likely the teacher will be moved or RIFFed at next opportunity...your child isn't the first. Of course, if they're all corrupt..you're sunk.

ChemProf said...

The bullying teacher scenario is a really tough one, as especially for socially awkward girls, the teacher can really create an environment where it is okay for other girls to pick on the outcast. I've been there. Also, at least in the 1970's, the prohibition on tattling was really confusing for me, and I know that was common for other kids who didn't pick up on social norms easily (many of whom I met in college!)

Interestingly, the teachers who targeted me were always women, and when I (rarely) found a defender, it was a male teacher or guidance counselor. I have always been amused by the assumption that women will support other women.

Also, as a parent, don't assume, even if your child tells you what is going on, that you have the whole story. When my high school English teacher was making my life hell, my mother knew something was going on, and had me go see my guidance counselor. She thought I might get angry and say something inappropriate. He realized I was about to commit assault, and gave me a get out of jail free card, which I could use anytime during that class to go see him. As for changing classes, the teacher taught the only sections of Honors English, so there were no other options for me.

Giving your child tools to deal with a bully is good, but parents need to realize that those tools are usually only minimally effective. It is important, though, that kids know they don't deserve to be treated that way.

Katharine Beals said...

"I have always been amused by the assumption that women will support other women." Yes, indeed. In my own personal experience, a large portion of today's gender discrimination is perpetrated on women by other women. Sad.

Women and girls are also really good at the kind of subtle social slights (see Odd Girl Out) that slip easily through anti-bullying programs. Learning how to handle these slights as early on as possible is essential.

ChemProf said...

It can be even worse than you think - the anti-bullying programs can themselves wind up targeting some socially awkward kids. That kid is baited until he or she lashes out, and is then taken to the teacher. Since the original baiting seems like normal childish behavior, and often the socially awkward child can't explain exactly what set them off, it can be the bullied child who actually gets punished.

One of many reasons we are planning to homeschool is that our families both skip between merely geeky and mildly autistic, but wherever you are in that curve, you are bully bait.

Katharine Beals said...

"the anti-bullying programs can themselves wind up targeting some socially awkward kids. That kid is baited until he or she lashes out, and is then taken to the teacher. " ChemProf--thanks for your insight on this. It's tremendously important to keep in mind. I wish I'd had the benefit of it when I wrote "Left Brain Child," but will be adding to it the section on bullying for my autism class.