We spoke with Tori Cordiano, Ph.D. and the Director of Research of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, about bullying: what it is, what middle school kids can do to stop it, and what parents should do. Here are some key points from her interview.
Bullying: A Definition
It’s important to understand exactly what bullying is. When there is some kind of social conflict, we tend to misuse the word bullying. Often we use bullying to describe when two people are not getting along or someone is being excluded. But bullying is about more than feeling left out or ganged up upon. It’s about feeling threatened.
More specifically, bullying is a repeated pattern of targeted behavior that’s aggressive. It can be physical, verbal, or emotional, but the one constant is that there is an imbalance of power such that the person being bullied is inadequately able to defend him or herself.
Parents need to resist the Mama Bear instinct that kicks in when our kids are upset. Instead, hit the pause button. And get curious about the situation.
Even if whatever happened is not bullying, that doesn’t mean that it’s not painful. So it’s important to have empathy and play a supportive role. By asking questions and taking a measured, thoughtful approach, parents can help their children problem-solve.
Of course, if it is bullying, grownups need to make it safe.
Q: What can middle school kids do?
Cordiano: We place a lot of burden on our kids when we ask them to be “upstanders.” As adults, we expect them to stand up be we forget how hard it is to go head to head with someone who may have more power.
So we can’t just say, “You need to be an upstander.” But we can talk to our children about what they can do if they observe someone being mean. There are a lot of options:
- Confront the bully directly
- Take the side or move physically closer to the person being targeted
- Get an adult if necessary
- Get the person being targeted to safety
Q: What if kids don’t believe adults can change things?
Cordiano: Kids aren’t wrong that adults are slow on the pickup and don’t understand the nuances. But adults can move to make things safer and equip kids with tools for the moment—what words to say or what actions to take.
Q: Do kids rotate through roles as bully, victim, and upstander?
Cordiano: It’s important for kids to know that we can learn from our behavior. Many of us think about times when we didn’t speak up and we want to challenge ourselves and know that we can do better next time and let our kids know that too. Tell them, “Just because you didn’t handle it well this time, there is an opportunity to do it differently next time.”
Q: Do zero tolerance policies mean there is no room for change?
Cordiano: These policies are put in place to protect kids, but we are dealing with children whose pre-frontal cortexes are not fully developed. So we need to have opportunities for them to reflect and change and grow. The key is to strike a balance between a protective and safe environment and an opportunity to learn and grow.
Q: Does calling other parents ever go well?
Cordiano: Rarely. Here’s where pausing and reflecting comes in. Call a friend who lives far away and is neutral so you can vent and think it through. Remember, our goal is to support kids and help them problem-solve and help them get back in there in a healthy way.
Q: How do we help parents feel optimistic about this stage of development?
Cordiano: In my years of working with adolescents, what stands out is how good they are to each other. You will not find a developmental age that is more passionate about social justice and change and the value of people coming together. There are so many examples of that to counter the other stuff.
The other antidote to bullying is empathy. If we teach it and model it and call it out when we see it, we can reframe conversations and feel hopeful that things will change moving forward.