July 26-Aug. 1, 2002
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Bullying not inevitable part of growing up
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Peter Sheras
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Peter Sheras

Bullying not inevitable part of growing up

By Anne Bromley

Having worked with teenagers for 27 years, U.Va. clinical psychologist Peter Sheras thinks it’s time to get tough about bullying.

“Bullying has been shown to create serious, lasting physical and emotional damage,” said Sheras, who has written a new book, Your Child: Bully or Victim? Understanding and Ending School Yard Tyranny.

It translates the latest research and clinical practice into information parents can use, while shattering some well-worn misconceptions about the behavior of bullies and victims. For instance, many people think some kids are born to be bullies and that ignoring them or fighting back are good solutions for a child who is being intimidated.

“There are no bully genes,” said Sheras.

Your Child: Bully or Victim?

Everyone has the same emotionSSs as a bully — feelings like wanting attention, to be loved and accepted. Some youngsters may believe that being domineering will keep them from getting hurt or that exerting control over others makes them feel better about an otherwise chaotic life. It’s the way we deal with frustration and anger that makes a difference.

“Bullying is a learned behavior — often from home but also from our culture. … It’s insidious,” said Sheras, who co-founded the Youth Violence Project with Curry School colleague Dewey Cornell. The project’s mission is to further the understanding and reduction ofx violent behavior in schools and other places through research and training.

Sheras defines bullying as “unprovoked aggressive behavior meant to dominate, hurt or exclude another as a way of channeling aggression.” It doesn’t just take place in the schoolyard; summer camps and day programs are also prime locations.

A typical schoolchild has a 30 percent chance of getting into a bullying situation, as the intimidator or the victim, according to the National Education Association. Research also shows that half of the identified bullies have also been victims. Most aggressive children can be reformed, he stressed.

Say your child comes home repeatedly with new bruises or ripped pants, bursts into tears for no reason or has trouble sleeping. He may seem lonely, fearful or less communicative. Those are typical signs that he might be getting bullied.

By calling bullying normal, we absolve ourselves of responsibility and leave another generation to struggle through on its own.

Peter Sheras
U.Va. clinical psychologist

The remaining 70 percent of children have probably been bystanders. They often feel guilty for not helping a child whom they see get bullied. They may be afraid to associate with the victim or the bully.

Bullies do pick on somebody weaker or more vulnerable in some way. That’s why telling the victim to fight back is bad advice. “Chances are that if your child has been tormented regularly by this bully, he will not win an outright fight with him in the arena the bully has chosen,” Sheras said.

Is there more bullying today than in the past? Not necessarily, said Sheras, but the concept is broader. A relatively new form of verbal bullying is “flaming” on the Internet — insulting a person or spreading rumors and lies via e-mail or chat-room discussions. Another increasing motive for bullying behavior is an offshoot of our consumerist culture: Bullies may be stealing more from their peers to add to their own status.

Bullying and its consequences have also become potentially more deadly, with victims using guns more often to balance the power equation. Standing up to the bully could mean taking his life. And then what happens to the victim?

Although there are some good programs to prevent and reduce bullying in schools, they are not enough.

“It’s a spit in the ocean. We need to do a lot more and start earlier,” Sheras said. “We can change the way people think about bullying.”


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