When Trusted Adults Bully Children
“There is zero research that provides evidence that any form of bullying and abuse improves performance, increases health and wellbeing, makes an individual resilient or tough. It’s all a tragic myth.” — author Jennifer Fraser Ph.D, and author of “The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health”
When writing our monthly newsletter, I attempt to take a closer look at something I have heard about lately through our organization. The topic of adults bullying children has always been something BRRC has dealt with. As a nonprofit organization, we are quite aware that the bullying of children and their families is often by school administration and school officials. This includes school principals, vice-principals, school resource officers and school counselors.
In general, bullying by trusted adults is:
- Rationalized by offenders
- Normalized by students
- Minimized or ignored by collogues who remain silent
- Enabled by inaction of school systems
- Undetected by outsiders in many cases
Adult bullying in our schools has special circumstances that can make it incredibly difficult for the target. Bullied students oftentimes feel shock, shame and report feeling powerless. Being bullied by an adult in a position of trust can cause other students to jump on the bandwagon and join in the abuse. Furthermore, when young people or other adults confront adult bullies the results can garner more humiliation, being given unfairly low grades, loss of playing time or less involvement in special activities. Oftentimes, adults will rally around the accused and treat them as the victim of the bullying. This can have absolutely tragic outcomes.
As a parent, I have stressed to my children the importance of treating adults with respect. I believe probably most parents have. We as a culture have been brainwashed that a certain amount of abuse, name-calling, and even physical power over our children will help them grow into resilient, strong adults. That is erroneous. Adult bullying of children can have a lasting effect on their mental physical health. They are much less likely to trust any adult and often it opens the doors to depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation.
When a student reports being bullied by an adult in a position of authority a caring adult has the responsibility to take the situation seriously and to intervene carefully. Several strategies can be helpful. Janet Olsen of Michigan State University offers the following suggestions:
- Listen deeply and probe for more information. It is important to respond in a way that shows your care for the child’s safety and well-being. It is a time to ask thoughtful questions and start to create a written account of what has happened with dates, times and potential witnesses.
- Stay calm. This is an opportunity to model thoughtful action for the child involved. Reacting quickly and out of anger can cause greater harm.
- Ask the child’s opinion before taking action. Remember, the child is the most at risk for further consequences and it is important to balance their concerns and have them be part of the solution going forward.
- Meet with the adult and their supervisor. Be prepared, respectful and clear. It is important to prepare ahead of the meeting. The school handbook should be consulted to see if there is policy or code of conduct related to adult behaviors at school. At the meeting, share what the child has reported to you. Describe how the situation is affecting their ability to learn or participate fully. Report how the behaviors relate to the school policy. If the teacher/coach seems concerned, regretful and apologetic, ask how they plan to follow up with the child. If your conversation and concerns are dismissed or not taken seriously be prepared to take your concerns to the next level such as the school board or consider contacting an attorney or Bullying Recovery Resource Center.
- After taking action, follow-up with your child. Your child needs to know what to expect going forward. They may also need additional support from a counselor.
Experts agree that with any bullying, and especially bullying involving an authority figure should not remain silent. Letting adult bullying “blow over” allows the cycle of harassment to continue and silence ultimately enables the bully. The adult who engages in unabated bullying behavior may feel that their behavior is acceptable and label it as “discipline” or “motivation”. If the bullying continues after reporting it, the child should be removed from the classroom or the team.
Jennifer Fraser who is quoted at the beginning of this article stresses that we are overdue to establish an effective “immunization” strategy to help our kids in the bullying epidemic. Her four suggestions are:
- Educating the public. Adults in positions of trust and influence over children need to become educated about maintaining children’s mental health as well as their own.
- Assessing adult mental health. She recommends that adults assess their mental health just as we do with our teeth, eyes and with a physical at the doctor.
- Assessing children’s mental health. She recommends children be taught about psychology and neuroscience in applicable ways. When children have a vocabulary to express what they are feeling and what is happening to them, they can become empowered and understand their mental health is just as crucial as their physical health.
- Getting bullies the help they need. Bullying behavior often comes from a person who has been abused themselves. Intervention and rehabilitation can stop the spread of bullying and allow them to heal from their past trauma.
Bullying Recovery Resource Center believes it is always the responsibility of adults to STOP bullying. It is no less important when an adult in a position of authority is the aggressor. We feel it is the duty of school officials to care for their students and take appropriate action when a trusted adult is bullying children. If your child has been the target of adult bullying and the school has not properly addressed the problem, please contact us. No child ever deserves to be bullied.
By Dru Ahlborg
Bullying Recovery Resource Center
DENVER, Colorado —
DENVER – Tom and Dru Ahlborg didn’t set out to become experts in bullying, but when their son was relentlessly bullied in middle school they found themselves in the middle of a crash course on the topic.
“When you feel powerless, and your child is, you know, suicidal or whatever, you are just — you’re doing anything,” Tom said.
Tom and Dru Ahlborg founded the Bullying Recovery Resource Center in 2018. Since then, they’ve built upon the expertise they gained on their own to help children and families who need a voice in their corner who believes in them.
“We teach them how to talk about bullying,” Dru said. “There’s a different language we want to use. The child is not a victim. They’re a target.”
With the aid of a team of experienced volunteers, BRRC provides the things families need. Anything from information and support, to advocates to help them work on solutions with their child’s school.
BRRC has helped dozens of families over the years, and while they have seen an uptick in violent bullying recently, they say physical bullying isn’t the only challenge families are facing.
“There’s a lot of shunning and gossip and things like that,” Dru said. “That can be just as harmful as any other kind of bullying.”
- To learn more about the programs offered by the Bullying Recovery Resource Center, including how you can help, click here. BRRC does have a golf fundraiser coming up on April 22. Click here for information.
- If you or someone you know is in distress, call the Suicide & Crisis Hotline by clicking here or dialing 988.
- Safe2Tell takes reports from students or others concerned about their safety. Click here for information.
“The other way that we have seen that is where Safe2Tell was notified about a child that’s gonna bring a gun. And that’s the bullied kid and they’re visited at like 2 a.m. in the morning,” Tom added.
And while the Ahlborgs are trying to change the way schools handle incidences of bullying, their bigger goal is much more defined: Be there for kids in need so they don’t attempt suicide.
“If that child knows that they’re being protected, they’re heard, we’re going to find a solution to get them safe,” Dru said.
Bystander Roles in Bullying
“There are no innocent bystanders.” – author William S. Burroughs
The act of bullying is often a complicated expression of the two main characters: the perpetrator(s) and the target. Stopbullying.gov states that bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school age children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying is the exploitation of that imbalance of power between the aggressor and the target. The reasons why a child may engage in bullying behavior are important to understand, but it is also important to learn about the other children who are witnessing the event. They play a dynamic role in bullying as well and these children are the bystanders.
Bullying occurs for a variety of reasons depending on the child committing the bullying act. In many bullying instances, the perpetrator is motivated by power, high status and visibility. If that is the case, the bully needs bystanders. Bullies are selective as to whom they target and who is present, and this is especially true for the offender who is seeking a higher social status and popularity. Children who engage in becoming a bully will select targets who are less likely to strike back and will also engage in bullying behavior when there are other children available to witness the act (bystanders.)
Bystanders play an important role in bullying for several reasons. First, youth who bully others are often perceived as popular by their classmates especially during adolescence. One study states that youth who engage in aggressive behavior become increasingly popular over time. Secondly, when no child challenges the behavior of bullies, other students come to falsely perceive it as others approving of it. This is called pluralistic ignorance. Lastly, bullies carefully select their targets based on the target appearing submissive or insecure. The perpetrator of bullying will gain the maximum social accolades with peers/bystanders at the same time as reducing their risk of harm or loss of affection from their peers.
Dan Olweus, PhD, is a Swedish-Norwegian psychologist widely regarded as a pioneer of research on bullying. Part of his contribution is the concept of the Bullying Circle which explain the various roles children play when bullying happens. A wonderful graphic adaption of the Bullying Circle is featured below with the permission of Barbara Coloroso, best-selling international author, consultant, speaker and BRRC board member.
Bystanders can engage in various roles and are supporters (even if they are silent) to bullying. There is a price to pay for children who are bystanders as their self-confidence and self-respect can be diminished.
The various bystander roles are:
- Henchmen – They take an active part in the bullying but do not plan or start the bullying.
- Active Supporters – These children may encourage the bullying and seek social and material gain.
- Passive Supporters – Appear to enjoy the bullying however do not show open support.
- Disengaged Onlookers – Children in this category may turn away and feel like it is none of their business.
- Potential Witnesses – These students oppose the bullying and know they should help and do not act.
Bullying research states that raising children’s awareness about all the roles in the bullying process can clear the path for moving more children into the upstander and defender role. Social and emotional learning (SEL) can aid in increasing student engagement, understanding and creating empathy. Teachers should have their students reflect on their behaviors when witnessing bullying and facilitate discussions and brainstorm different ways to respond the bullying. Schools and teachers should provide safe and effective strategies to report bullying and support the bullying target. Just as peers can serve to “encourage” bullying, they can also encourage resisting, reporting and aiding children caught in the crossfire of bullying.
Looking at the Bullying Circle, it becomes obvious that we want to assist children to proceed counterclockwise to become the resister, defender or as BRRC labels it, an upstander. The leap from potential witness is much less challenging than from being a henchman or active supporter. Over and over research states that even just one person having the strength to resist the bully and defend the targeted child can stop the bully and provide comfort and compassion to the bullying target.
By Dru Ahlborg
Bullying Recovery Resource Center