A CONVERSATION WITH SIGNE WHITSON
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…’
We’ve all heard it – maybe we’ve even said it. But is it true?
Girls who bully specialise in cutting remarks and deliberate exclusion. Those who’ve experienced bullying by girls know that words certainly do hurt, and anyone who’s seen their own little girl reduced to tears by a bully knows this, too. What we don’t always know is how to prevent and deal with the pain caused by bullies. Luckily for us, there’s someone who does …
Signe Whitson is a bullying prevention expert who’s worked with young people and their families for two decades as a social worker, school counsellor, and speaker. She’s also written a number of books – the latest of which is 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. We managed to catch up with her recently to ask her a few questions – particularly about the troubling world of girl bullying.
GRAPEVINE: As a parent, it can be pretty tricky knowing when to sit up and pay attention. Obviously kids are going to run into conflict at times, and none of us wants to be that parent who rushes in and makes a huge fuss every time they think their kid is being picked on. What warning signs can we look for to alert us to the fact that bullying is taking place?
SIGNE: I call them the ‘red flags’ of relational bullying. Parents should be aware of subtle things – behaviours they might easily overlook or downplay, such as gossiping, giving the silent treatment, spreading rumours, or excluding someone from activities (and then making sure to talk about those activities in front of the excluded person).
ON THE OUTER
The common feature is kids using their friendship (or the withdrawal of their friendship) as a weapon. So be on the lookout for unkind phrases such as, “I won’t be your friend anymore if you …” or “You’re not my friend anymore because …”
GV: So that kid who’s always telling mine not to be friends with so-and-so or she won’t be friends with her is actually being a bit of a bully? That’s worth knowing! What effect might this kind of bullying have on a young girl, if it continues unchecked?
SIGNE: With relational bullying, what you typically see is changes in a girl’s social interactions – even to the point of avoiding social time altogether. You’d likely find that the child who always used to talk with her friends after school, now isn’t calling or texting anyone. She isn’t receiving the phonecalls she used to, either. I also tell parents to look for changes in their kids’ sleeping patterns, eating patterns, and grades.
Emotional symptoms often express themselves physically, too, so you might find kids starting to complain of stomach aches or headaches, or wanting to sleep all the time. And, of course, there are the classic symptoms of bullying: drop in self-esteem and changes in mood.
GV: You call this relational bullying ‘girl bullying’ – does that mean you’ve found that boys and girls bully differently?
SIGNE: That’s a great question. In truth, I often hesitate to label these behaviors as strictly ‘girl bullying,’ because we know for sure that boys also purposefully exclude others, spread rumours online, and pull rank in their friendships. But, too often, we’re seeing those behaviours in girls. I think an important reason for the difference is that boys are brought up with more social freedom to tell other people how they feel and to show anger. Too many girls receive the message from family, friends, teachers, and the public at large, that ‘good girls don’t get angry.’ From a very early age, they feel pressured to conceal their natural, human anger behind a veil of pleasantries. Girls receive a loud and clear social message that ‘I’d better not reveal my anger openly. I should never raise my voice at anyone, and I’m certainly not allowed to hit anyone. But I can use my friendship as a weapon.’
GV: So, by making girls feel that their anger isn’t normal, we can unintentionally encourage them to vent their frustration in harmful ways? I guess it’s important to help girls find a way to channel and express that emotion appropriately, then.
SIGNE: Absolutely! Professionally, much of my early work involved teaching young people how to express anger assertively, instead of aggressively or passively. These experiences – and seeing how challenging it can be for girls, especially – led me to my work in the field of bullying prevention. It’s a big priority for me to help give girls a voice. I always assure young people that any emotion they feel is okay, but that there are healthy, constructive ways to express it. We all need to give young people skills to be assertive, to be honest, and to take honest feedback from other people.
GV: We all know that kids in general (not ours of course!) – watch loads of TV these days. What effect does this have in forming attitudes in girls that might lead to them bullying?
SIGNE: I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to ban kids from watching TV altogether – but I do believe that adults need to play an active role in helping kids think about what they’re seeing in the media.
Popular channels like Disney and Nickelodeon are really geared for intermediate-age and tween girls. And many of the characters that you see on these networks can be incredibly conniving, manipulative, back-handed, and mean to each other!
You can’t help but believe that girls are growing up watching these shows and believing that this is how you should treat your friends. Simply by making time to watch particular shows with kids, and talking over desirable vs. undesirable friendship behaviours (in a non-finger-wagging way), adults can make a real difference in kids’ thinking and behaviour.
GV: So let’s say my daughter’s BFF (Best Friend Forever) takes the cue from her favourite bad-girl on Disney and starts to bully my girl. What do I do when my daughter comes to me and tells me what’s going on? I mean, aside from freaking out – which I would assume would be the natural response?
SIGNE: Yes, I think that one of the most important things when parents find out that their child is being bullied is to not freak out! Sometimes parents get so emotional and up-in-arms that the message they give to their kids is that conflict is an unsolvable problem. What kids need to hear is, “We can handle this … we can do something about this.”
It’s really important, too, that parents believe kids when they say they’re being bullied. Sometimes, as adults, we downplay the impact of unwanted aggression on kids. We think it’s not that big a deal; we tell ourselves that bullying is a rite of passage or that “kids will be kids.” But in doing so, we diminish how hurtful friendship challenges can be. As parents and caregivers, we have to be there to listen to kids, to take their concerns seriously, to believe them and to offer support for what they’re going through.
GV: What if my daughter’s being bullied, but she doesn’t tell me about it – what if I find out myself? Do you have any advice for parents whose kid is being bullied but she hasn’t confided in them?
SIGNE: If a parent finds out that their child is being bullied – and that child hasn’t actually come to them with the information – it’s so important that parents don’t take the concealment personally. It can be very difficult for kids to confide in adults about being bullied because the experience evokes so many feelings of humiliation and shame. When kids are held in very high regard by their family, but experience bullying in school, they often attempt to keep a barrier between their two different worlds. Their instinct is to cling to the feeling of being ‘normal’ and happy in their life at home, and not to cloud this with the distress they are experiencing at school.
Other kids are concerned about telling their parents about bullying because they worry that they’ll be labelled a tattletale, or they think their parents will rush into the school and make the situation worse. Parents need to understand that their child is going through something really gruelling, and that it takes a tonne of courage to come forward.
NOT YOUR FAULT
When a parent does find out that their child is being bullied, it’s helpful to use open-ended questions to encourage dialogue with the child – and to strictly avoid using closed-ended, interrogation style questioning or long lectures that imply that their child is at fault for being bullied.
If it’s hard for a child to talk about bullying, parents should work to make it easy for them to open up – by being non-judgemental, by believing what kids say, by empathizing with their pain, and by empowering them to think through problem-solving options.
GV: As a parent, my mama-bear instincts are obviously going to kick in if I spot another kid bullying mine. But if I’m at school and I see another child being bullied, what do you reckon I could say or do to help?
SIGNE: I think that so many times we – as kids or as adults – put too much pressure on ourselves to say the perfect thing. There are no magic words, but there is tremendous comfort in simply being there for a person and acknowledging their pain.
GV: That sounds easy enough – it’s not hard to empathise with a child who’s being badly treated. It’d be great to help our kids avoid being bullied in the first place, too. Can you tell me how a child might unintentionally make herself a target for bullying?
SIGNE: Little kids often struggle with emotion-management. They have big responses – big reactions to the behaviours of their peers. If they’re upset, they cry; if they’re hurt, they scream out.
At the same time, a primary motivation of a child who bullies is to control her peers and to gain power over them. When a socially aggressive child successfully provokes a big response in their target – screaming, crying, etc – they reap the immediate reward of feeling powerful. They’ve engineered their target’s emotional reaction and/or the responses of the peer group (if these other kids then spread rumours about this interaction). In having this success, they’re motivated to repeat the bullying behaviours over and over again.
I coach kids in developing emotion-management skills. I teach them how, in the moment – no matter how much someone has hurt your feelings or frustrated you – your best bet is to act like you don’t care. Just sort of wave it away – adopt an easy ‘whatever’ kind of attitude. That doesn’t mean that I think kids should bottle their feelings up forever!
I want them to have a friend, a parent, or a teacher they can confide their true feelings in. But in the heat of the moment, when someone’s trying to gain emotional control over them, they really do themselves a disservice when they have this big, over-the-top emotional reaction.
GV: It seems that there’s never a shortage of kids for bullies to pick on. There are always going to be kids who haven’t got their own emotions under control or who are targeted for some other reason. So how should I teach my kids to approach a situation where they see someone being bullied? Does stepping in make the problem worse, or does it help?
SIGNE: Peer bystanders – other kids – are really a key element in stopping bullying. One study found that peers are present in 9 out of 10 incidents of bullying, but they intervene less than 20 percent of the time. When peers do step in, however, the episode of bullying typically stops in under 10 seconds. Remember, kids bully to control others – they’re doing it for the social capital they gain by putting someone down in front of other people. That’s why peers can be so powerful – when instead of laughing, contributing to the aggression, or standing by silently, they say something simple like, “Hey, knock it off – that’s not funny!” they can stop bullying in its tracks! Interventions don’t have to be complicated!
STAND BY ME
A child doesn’t have to have a PhD in psychology to stand up for a peer in the heat of the moment or to go up to a bullied person after-the-fact and say to them, “I saw what she did to you – that was really not cool!” and then offer to walk with her or ride the bus together.
Those simple actions can make a huge difference in the life of a bullied child.
GV: I’d like to equip my own children to respond confidently when they see someone being hurt or teased – especially now that I know what a big difference it can make. You encourage kids to actually rehearse phrases to say to bullies, don’t you? Could you tell us a bit more about how these work?
SIGNE: One of the things that I want adults to talk about with kids, is that ‘in the moment’ (when someone’s being mean to you) it can be incredibly difficult to think of a useful response. Your brain is in emotional mode; it’s not in thinking mode. That’s why it’s so helpful for kids to pre-plan a few stock phrases they can use in an emotionally challenging situation.
When kids have a repertoire of memorised ‘Bully Bans,’ they automatically know what to say in a difficult situation. This, in turn, allows them to stay calm and avoid the over-the-top emotional responses that end up fueling a bully’s need for power.
GV: So these Bully Bans can be used by kids who are being bullied as well as others who want to intervene?
SIGNE: Absolutely. In my book, Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying, I introduce the concept of Bully Bans – assertive, emotionally neutral phrases that let others know that you will not participate in their bullying, nor will you be a victim of bullying. These phrases – brainstormed by kids themselves – can be used by any young person to stop bullying in its tracks.
Typical Bully Bans sound like:
- Not cool!
- Knock it off!
- That sounds like a rumour to me.
- I like the way I look.
- I can take a joke, but what you just said wasn’t funny – it was mean!
You know, the child who bullies doesn’t start out using their most aggressive tactics in their first interaction with a target. They try something little at first – they call someone a name, they roll their eyes, they leave someone out, etc. If they get away with it (if the person doesn’t stand up for themselves or if nobody intervenes) then the next day they do something a bit bigger, a bit meaner, until it becomes a pattern. When you have an adult who is aware of what’s going on, or a peer who’s brave enough to jump in with a Bully Ban when the problem is still little, they can be extremely effective in nipping the problem behaviour in the bud.
GV: I’ve seen some heartbreaking reports on the effects of bullying on kids – even sometimes leading, tragically, to suicide – and I want so badly to protect my children. How can I, as a mum, go about making my home a safe place – a refuge from bullying – for my kids?
SIGNE: There are a number of things you can do, but perhaps the important thing is that you don’t just start teaching skills when your child first reports being bullied. Rather, the most effective parents fortify their children against the impact of bullying from a very young age. Helpful parents start by creating a supportive, nurturing home environment where kids feel accepted and can talk about anything. Effective parents make time to listen – even to the seemingly unimportant things – because when our kids know we will listen to anything, they’re more likely to tell us everything.
GV: Okay, so let’s say a parent has been laying the groundwork – talking with her kids, listening to her kids – and she hasn’t seen any signs that her child has been bullied. But then she discovers – to her horror – that her child is actually bullying another child. What should she do?
SIGNE: One thing I’d want her to realise is that, from time to time, most kids do something mean. By their very nature, a child is a work in progress, and young people are developing normally when they try out all kinds of behaviours.
If your child starts an online rumour about a girl with whom she’s had a fight, it doesn’t automatically mean that she’s a problem child, a bully, or a chronic troublemaker. It simply means that she’s a young person who deserves to be taught a better way to behave when angry.
If you find that your child has bullied someone else, it is not helpful to simply punish her and assume that the problem will never happen again. Positive long-term changes in behaviour come when parents open a two-way dialogue with their kids about specific situations, and communicate their expectations for how kids are expected to treat others. If your daughter is missing some social skills in how she handles anger or manages friendship conflicts, teach her the skills that she needs! Help her to feel heard and understood rather than alienated and punished. Make compassion and kindness family values.
Some parents get up in arms if another child is hurting theirs; but if their child is being the aggressive one, then they downplay it. I want parents to make sure that their own kids are kind, just as much as they want other people to be kind to their children.
GV: I love the idea of making compassion and kindness family values. You write that ‘the little things are truly the big things’ in making a difference in kids’ lives – is this one of those ‘little things’ you’re talking about?
SIGNE: When I first began talking about ‘the little things’ it’s because I was seeing so many adults – parents, teachers, counsellors – who were overwhelmed with learning how to confront bullying and how to keep kids safe. Many of these adults were worried that they couldn’t do anything about the problem because it was just too complicated. But it turns out that it’s not big things – laws or school-wide anti-bullying campaigns – that change people, but rather people change people.
The little things that we do on a day-to-day basis actually make the most profound difference. It’s all the little daily conversations that parents can have with their kids throughout the years; it’s the teacher who takes time to notice her kids, and take the pulse of the classroom.
I remember a nine-year-old girl running up to me on the second day of school, all joyful and excited, and announcing, “My teacher really likes me this year!” I said, “That’s great! How can you tell?” and she told me, “Well, last year my teacher would just sit at her desk all morning, and she would only talk to the kids if she was yelling at us. And this year, my teacher stands at the door, and she knows my name already and she smiles and shakes my hand!”
All the teacher was doing was taking maybe five minutes out of her day; but by looking her students in the eye, calling them by name, and making them feel welcome in her classroom every morning, she was creating an environment where these kids felt safe. If something bad was happening to them, they’d trust her enough to tell her. Likewise, kids in the class would never think about being unkind, because they’d never want to disappoint this teacher.
GIFT OF KINDNESS
Again, it’s these little things that make the difference. This teacher didn’t learn that in an extensive training programme – she’s just being a kind human. It’s in these little ways that we make children feel that they’re valued and they’re worthwhile.
GV: So even something as simple as that – creating an environment of encouragement and connection in the classroom – can help prevent bullying?
SIGNE: Absolutely. That teacher is the decisive element in creating school-wide cultures of kindness.
GV: Some people don’t get involved in bullying prevention because they reckon it’s not in their job description. Others are even skeptical about how damaging bullying can be to young people, and they wonder if maybe we’re just making a big deal about nothing. How would you respond to the nay-sayers?
SIGNE: If you have a conversation with a child who has been the victim of bullying – or with an adult who was bullied 20, 40 years ago – when you hear the emotion in their voice, there’s no way you can come away from that thinking, ‘It’s no big deal.’ People carry the scars from bullying for a long, long time – its effects often last a lifetime. There’s all kinds of medical evidence to show that people who were chronically bullied in childhood tend to develop more anxiety, more depression, and more risky behaviour (such as resorting to alcohol and drugs to deal with their emotions).
Scientifically, biologically, and medically, we can document that bullying IS a big deal. And minimising a problem is NOT what a caring adult does; it’s what a manipulative bully does. Caring adults will take a child seriously and will make them feel heard, understood, and supported.
‘Sticks and stones’ may be a playground mantra, but the fact is that words can and do wound very deeply. The physical pain you can deal with, but ongoing humiliation and harassment – they really hurt.
IF YOU’D LIKE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT SIGNE AND HER WORK, MAKE SURE YOU CHECK OUT HER WEBSITE A WWW.SIGNEWHITSON.COM