One of my earliest memories of being bullied happened at a sleepover with my friend Chad. We were outside playing in a sandbox. Living in a small town, we had friends who lived within walking distance. Before long, two neighbor kids joined us. But they didn’t want to play in the sand.
Instead, I found myself in the alleyway around the corner with the two neighbor kids and Chad. When it was just Chad and I, we had a blast. When others joined, I got the short end of the stick. Or in this case, was the recipient of a modern day stoning. My so-called friends had decided to play a game where we threw stones at one another—except they didn’t allow me to throw.
I was pelted over and over again, in the head, legs, stomach, face, and arms. I didn’t know when they would stop. The more I pleaded for mercy, the harder the stones came. I cried. They called me a sissy.
The Rules Have Changed
Fortunately, that stoning was isolated to those few friends and wasn’t talked about to anybody else. The video wasn’t posted on Youtube. Pictures weren’t found on Instagram. Facebook didn’t exist. Neither did Snapchat or cell phones. That shameful day wasn’t recorded and posted for our entire school to see.
Bullying in the 21st century looks much different than years past. Fists flying at the flagpole in front of a small crowd after school are now tactless words and embarrassing pictures posted for much larger crowds of peers over the web.
I’m not minimizing the shame I felt that day. Stones hurt. I’m just grateful it wasn’t multiplied times hundreds of peers and prolonged for weeks.
Today, nearly half of all kids are bullied during grades K-12, with 10-20% bullied on an ongoing basis. The same numbers of kids also admit to bullying someone online. Some statistics show that as many as 25% of teens are repeatedly bullied online or through their cellphone.
The problem is exasperated by the fact that victims of cyberbullying are almost two times more likely to commit suicide than kids not bullied online. Interestingly, even online bullies themselves are found to be one and a half times more likely to commit suicide than other kids.
With the sophistication of cell phones and social networks, the shame tends to be felt much deeper. Once nasty messages and unattractive photos are sent through cellphones and computers, they may reemerge later, along with the anxiety and depression that comes with being bullied.
Why is Bullying On the Rise?
The attachment a child develops with the parent sets the stage for how they regulate emotion and view relationship experiences. When a child feels safe and loved by mom and dad, it sets the basis for healthy self-esteem, which in turn is the foundation for empathy. Empathetic kids are not bullies.
I believe in today’s world of increased divorce rates, fatherlessness, and busy schedules, kids are under more relational stress at home. To relieve the stress, they are looking for affirmation in other places, namely, picking on others. But even more than the structure of the environment, research shows it’s the quality of the relationship with the parent that matters most.
What Parents Need to Know about Child Bullying
Be Empathetic. First, what parents need to know when it comes to bullying is humbly admitting what they don’t know. The biggest request of many of the bullied teens brave enough to come to me for help is, “Please don’t tell my parents.” In fact, only 10% of teens tell their parents if they become a victim of cyberbullying.
I have watched many parents on both sides of the spectrum either deny the seriousness of the situation as only a “phase,” or “kids just being kids,” or even blame their own kids for getting bullied and not fighting back. Both situations add insult to injury. Ignoring the teen’s shame only increases it. What our kids need are empathy, safety and love.
Don’t be Naïve.
Secondly, I know parents never want to assume the worst about their kids. I often hear, “My son/daughter would never do that.” However, I want to warn you that sexting, (sending sexually explicit pictures to another via text message) is more common than you think, even among religious teenagers. Statistics show that 20% of teens have admitted to sending sexually suggestive or nude pictures of themselves to others.
But what happens when the teen fling is over? Who has those pictures and messages? Perhaps the scorned ex? Though sending cruel messages and spreading rumors are the most common forms of cyberbullying, circulating sexually suggestive pictures has become one of the most shame-filled ways of bullying another. I cannot emphasize to teenagers enough the risks of taking pictures of themselves they would later be embarrassed to have others see.
Set and Talk About Limits.
Third, understand that as long as your children live under your roof, they play by your rules. I have helped countless parents help put safeguards on their Internet and teenagers’ cell phones because of pornography. Bullying is just as bad. When it comes to cell phone and Internet usage, limit the times of day your kids can be online or using their cellphones. Know who they are talking to online and talk to them about the risks of sending embarrassing pictures to others or giving out their internet or cellphone passwords. I know it sounds crazy, but most teens today are sharing their passwords with friends.
As a parent, you influence your child more than any other person. I mentioned earlier the importance of the quality of the relationship with the parent. If you are a single mother, find godly male mentors to help speak into and be safe in your child’s life. If you are too busy, stop. Make your spouse and children the priority over your work, other relationships, and hobbies. Follow Deuteronomy 6 and be available to talk to your kids when they wake, during meal times and drive times, and when they go to bed at night. Use the mundane times of the day to be emotionally available to your kids and listen to their hearts. They may not always share with you, but it only takes that one moment. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share what’s going on and have empathy for others.
Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is the President and Co-Founder of The Connextion Group. He is a speaker, author, counselor, and life coach. Coauthor of God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act and Feel the Way You Do About God and The Quick Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers, Josh specializes in attachment and relationship research, the Millennial generation, marriage and family, crisis and trauma, and spiritual formation. Josh is married to his favorite Canadian, Christi and together they are the proud parents of Landon Andrew.