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A threatening note taped to a locker. Books knocked to the floor between periods. Cruel words in the cafeteria. Fear of physical abuse that makes a 10-minute wait for the school bus seem like an eternity. Ever been there? For some adults, these images summon unpleasant memories. And for parents, the only thing worse than reliving those humiliating days is watching helplessly as their children face similar trials.

"Bullying is a huge, huge problem in this culture," says psychologist and author Dr. James Dobson. "Kids can be cruel. I spoke with a strong Christian family whose son had contemplated suicide because he was being made fun of at school. It seems his ears protruded ever so slightly. And one boy in particular was giving him fits. It took away his desire to live. People say, 'It's an overreaction. Everybody goes through that.' Sure they do. Most of us did. And most of us got through it. But most of us are different for having gone through it, and some people have carried that with them for the rest of their lives."

How painful is it? Research reveals that young people consider the death of someone close to them the only experience worse than bullying. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 86 percent of American kids have endured it. And while it's an issue commonly associated with boys, Rachel Simmons, the author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, says bullying among girls has become "epidemic." Female bullying has been addressed in numerous forums, including a New York Times Magazine cover story, an ABC News special, on Dateline NBC, The Oprah Winfrey Show and National Public Radio. While boys lean toward physical aggression, girls resort more to "relational aggression," such as isolating someone from a social circle or gossiping maliciously about a peer.

Of course, bullying isn't unique to the United States. A survey of 2,308 10- to 14-year-olds in England noted that bullying is "widespread" there. Researchers in New Zealand state that between 50 and 75 percent of children are bullied, 10 percent weekly. In Ontario, Canada, one in four students in grades 7-12 is victimized, and one in 10 claims to have seriously considered suicide to escape bullies. British Columbia reported three cases in five years of severe bullying resulting in the murder or suicide of a teenager. And should anyone doubt how, left unchecked, such browbeating can carry over into adulthood, an Australian support group arose called SAEBOW, which stands for South Australian Employees Bullied Out of Work.

"Maybe one of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is because I went through it too," Dr. Dobson shared with a gathering of adults as part of Focus on the Family's video series Bringing Up Boys. "For two years in junior high I was really taking it. I remember one day when I was 14 that was really terrible. I cried all the way home. As usual, my good Dad was there and he sat me down to talk about it. He talked me down from the precipice. That's really important for you to understand. If [a boy or girl] has parents who are involved, when they run into these things you can work your way through them and release the tensions. But many kids don't have that. There's nobody at home and nobody cares, or they care but are too exhausted to be involved. So the tensions grow. They get more angry and there's a form of rage that develops inside." Whether given over to rage or despair, emotions can indeed run high. And when no one's there to provide loving support and encouragement, the door is open for irresponsible voices of the culture to make things worse.

Entertainment Can Add Injury to Insult
Authorities have determined that most of the school shootings in the late '90s resulted from teens feeling bullied and persecuted. In the tragic aftermath, we often heard that the shooters were fans of violent music, movies and video games. A catharsis? Or did the entertainment ignite an already bitter fixation—like pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire?

On his 8 million-selling album The Marshall Mathers LP, incendiary rapper Eminem shouts, "I used to be mommy's little angel at 12/At 13 I was puttin' shells in a gauge on a shelf/I used to get punched and bullied on my block/'Til I cut a kitten's head off and stuck it in this kid's mailbox" ("I'm Back"). Such songs empathize with abused adolescents and endorse violent payback. A hurting teen tempted to lash out has, in effect, received a ringing endorsement from someone he respects.

Sometimes music can reinforce self-destructive feelings. After years of being bullied, 16-year-old Nicola Raphael put an end to it by overdosing on painkillers. She'd given herself over to the Goth subculture. Her idol, shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, interrupted a concert to pay tribute to his fallen fan saying, "This is for a girl called Nicola who was teased and beaten up after school every day until she could not take it and killed herself." Certainly, bullying made life miserable for Nicola. But retreating into music that screams, as Manson's does, "You can kill yourself now because you're dead in my mind," "I'm so all-American I'd sell you suicide" and "If God was alive, he would hate you anyway" must have made her situation seem all the more hopeless.

"You Shouldn't Have to Be Scared to Go to School"
Michelle Williams of the R&B group Destiny's Child still bears the scars of adolescent bullying, recalling, "I would get sick and my parents wouldn't know why. You shouldn't have to be scared to go to school." Yet many teens are. In the U.S., 10 percent of students who drop out of school do so because of repeated bullying.

More and more states are passing anti-bullying laws for schools, both to create a safer learning environment and out of concern that families may file multimillion-dollar lawsuits in reprisal for a child's abuse. A report released in June by the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs states, "Without intervention, bullying can lead to serious academic, social, emotional and legal problems." The report also admitted, "Studies of successful anti-bullying programs are scarce in the United States."

Fortunately, other countries have attacked the problem head-on. After a study in the Netherlands revealed that 385,000 children were being bullied in schools, that nation implemented The Bullying Test, a computer program that allows students to share, anonymously, the type, extent and location of this behavior among classmates. Students also report whether adults intervened, and the end result. The test has made bullying a front-burner issue and provided valuable information that's helping adults and students initiate change. Researcher Rob Limper says, "Our method of working is available to other countries. The parents' organizations of Italy, Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Norway have already said 'yes' to this project."

Social scientists agree that the first step toward curbing this problem is developing a clear definition of bullying. It's not horseplay. It's not impish sarcasm or an isolated fistfight. Bullying is deliberately hurtful behavior repeated over time against a victim unable to defend himself. It can be broadly characterized as either physical, verbal or indirect (spreading rumors, intentional exclusion from social groups, etc.).

Once the problem is clearly defined, the next step involves setting measurable goals and objectives. For schools, that means getting educators, parents and students to unequivocally condemn bullying. In homes, it's a matter of broaching the issue and discussing what a child should do if confronted by a bully.

No More Silence: Hope at Home
Adolescents suffering from unexplained fearfulness, sleep disturbances or vague physical ailments on school days may be struggling with a bully. These are the only clues some moms and dads get. In the teen years, victims are less likely to discuss such conflict, preferring to live in what one university study called "a culture of silence." But experts concur that talking about bullying is essential to resolution. Adults should cultivate an openness about the subject and urge students to:

Keep parents in the loop. Parents, assure your children that you are on their side and won't take any action (visiting school, calling the bully's home) without discussing it with them first.

Realize that they are not to blame for being bullied, and refuse to believe any lies being told about them. The bully is the disturbed one, striking out at people because of insecurity, jealousy, or some other unmet need. Remind teens of their value in God's sight (Lk. 12:6-7, Gal. 2:20), and that no one can make them feel inferior without their permission.

Pray. Pray for the bully to undergo a heart change. Ask God for His protection, and to intervene in the circumstances.

Chronicle tense encounters in writing. Without exaggerating, note what was said or done, where, who witnessed it, and so on. Beyond being therapeutic, this is especially helpful if outside mediators need to enter the picture.

Investigate the school's anti-bullying policy. Knowing the amount of support one can expect on campus—and where to go for help—can make victims feel less isolated.

Rely on trusted peers for support. British researcher Helen Cowie says, "Peer support does not replace [adult] intervention, but it provides a crucial emotional and social safety net for very vulnerable young people."

Choose entertainment carefully. Avoid anything that could have a negative impact on already frayed emotions.

In his book Dr. Dobson Answers Your Questions, Focus on the Family's founder offers this encouragement: "The human personality grows through mild adversity, provided it is not crushed in the process. I have enjoyed happiness and fulfillment thus far my entire lifetime, with the exception of two painful years. Those stressful years occurred during my seventh- and eighth-grade days, lasting through ages 13 and 14. [Yet] these two years have contributed more positive features to my adult personality than any other span of which I am aware. My empathy for others, my desire to succeed in life, my motivation in graduate school, my understanding of inferiority and my communication with teenagers are primarily products of an agitated adolescence."

In far too many homes, bullied teens are agitated, frustrated and desperate for a way out—which may begin to explain the popularity of movies like Spider-Man. A $400 million box-office smash, Spider-Man is essentially a fantasy about a bullied teen who develops superpowers, transcends his circumstances and dedicates himself to protecting others. It struck a chord with audiences worldwide—young and old—who can relate to the character's plight. Let's lay a foundation in our children's lives for open, profitable communication should they encounter this common challenge of adolescence.

Published August 2002

If you found this helpful, you may also benefit from these articles Confessions of a Big-Screen Bully, Portrait of a Bully