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What Can We Do About Bullying? A Q&A with Lissa Albert

My last post on bullying sent the traffic to Coffee with Julie soaring. Clearly, I’d hit a nerve. I think that’s because the adults in our communities genuinely want to do something about bullying, but are just not sure what that is.

One reader, Chantal, suggested that having access to a social worker or other experienced worker in the realm of bullying would be very helpful. So I reached out to my online community and received a number of suggestions for whom I might be able to contact. One of the experts that was recommended to me (thank you, June!) was Lissa Albert.

Lissa holds a B.A. in Early Childhood Education, and recently graduated with a Masters in Educational Technology. In searching for a meaningful topic to research for her thesis, she decided on cyberbullying which, in 2009, was not as prevalent as it is today. She explained to me that as soon as she began her research, it became “her new mission in life.”

To date, Lissa has contributed to the latest book by Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja, entitled: “School Climate 2.0″(2012), and has become a contributor on their blog at the Cyberbullying Research Center. She is a regularly invited speaker and interviewee and offers her services as a consultant, speaker, educator for parents, students and all staff in schools, as well as organizations which may need to train their personnel (community centers, community organizations etc).

Q1. When it comes to bullying, how does one tell the difference between “teasing” or “bullying”?

Bullying has certain hallmark factors we must identify when assigning the term to behaviors we see.

First, it is a pattern of behavior; repetitive “teasing” is bullying, whereas one-time or random “normal” teasing is not. I use the example of kids who naturally tease their friends; we have all heard it, seen it, experienced it, but it doesn’t constitute bullying unless the behavior is repetitive.

As well, bullying is done with the intent to harm. Often, those who bully do not realize the impact their words or actions have on their victim. They don’t even realize they are bullying. But those who do bully knowingly do it with the intent to harm another, either physically, emotionally, relationship-wise, or psychologically. This is not to say we should overlook “unintentional” bullying; it, too, must be addressed.

Very importantly, we must remember that bullying is about a power differential, NOT a conflict to be resolved. Bullying takes place when one person demonstrates their contempt for others through use of power. The biggest mistake made is when dealing with bullying in a conflict resolution mode: putting a victim in conflict resolution is like putting a rape victim in the same room with his/her rapist.

So how do we know if it’s teasing or bullying? If it is deliberate, repeated, hostile/intended to harm, it is bullying.

That doesn’t mean one-time incidents are not bullying. Chances are there is more to a one-time attack than the attack itself. What schools and parents must do is assess the entire situation, not the one incident.

Cyberbullying follows the same definition but with the added element of venue: cyberbullying takes place using mobile and internet technology, and can be anything from email, text messages and instant messages to websites built specifically for the purpose of bullying the victim, or Facebook pages created for that purpose. The ways in which cyberbullying manifests are too vast to enumerate here (as mentioned, my entire thesis centers around the behavior). But again, repeated, deliberate hostility via communication technology/social networking is how we identify cyberbullying.

Q2. What should a parent do if their child comes home upset and says that they are getting bullied at school?

They must, first of all, praise their child for coming forth, and reinforce that their child has done the right thing by telling them. 58% of kids do NOT report or tell an adult, and this leads to deeper, more severe problems which can then lead to tragic results. Parents must — prior to this even becoming a situation — always keep the lines of communication open with their kids, and reiterate that they are the safe haven for anything and everything their children wish to discuss, without judgment, consequence, or reproach.

In the case of cyberbullying, though the first instinct of the parent may be to ban the technology, it is the wrong approach to take and punishes the child for being a victim. Instead, parents should always be aware of what their children are doing online, and must always reserve the right to access to their child’s devices. There are specific steps that can be taken in the case of cyberbullying, besides those noted below: the evidence of cyberbullying can be saved and preserved, and parents must become aware of how to do so (saving emails with header information that identifies the sender, saving text messages, screen shots of chat logs, to name several).

Parents must thoroughly investigate, and that involves checking any cyberbullying that may have taken place.  This is why a dialogue must be established between parents and kids about safe and responsible usage of these technologies as well as how to save the evidence.

Next, the parent must get all the details. It is not easy for a child at any age to talk about details. Bullying of all kinds erodes a victim’s self-esteem and by the time bullying is reported, this may already have begun. Many victims of bullying may feel they have done something to provoke the bullies. Parents must reassure their children that they have done nothing wrong and ask pertinent questions about the history of the situation. Try to remain calm and reassuring. Try not to “interrogate.” Asking open-ended questions will encourage more of a conversation and a back-and-forth question/answer. If a child has reported bullying, chances are likely the situation has been ongoing. The parent’s point of awareness must now stretch retroactively to what has happened up to this point. Needless to say, never ask the child what they might have done to get here — try to ask soothing, non-judgmental questions that the child can answer with facts and chronology.

Parents must assure their children that they will be safe and that they will take action to protect their child.

It is important for parents NOT to succumb to a plea to let the child deal on their own and not get involved. Teens, especially, feel that if their parents get involved, the bullying will get worse, or others will join in. Bullies are counting on their actions not being reported, and it has been shown that once a bully has been approached by either bystanders (peers) or authority figures (parents, teachers, principals), the bullying often stops. There are too many cases where parents have allowed their children to “take care of this myself,” and the results can be devastating.

Parents must approach the school as soon as possible. It is imperative they have a private meeting with an authority in the school — preferably principal or vice-principal — who is made aware of the situation and the parties involved. The school MUST deliver a promise that the child will be kept safe, and the school must be held to that promise.

Parents should not be the ones to confront the bullies or their parents. This is best left to the school to deal with, which should be promised by the school.

Ongoing dialogue with kids is crucial, especially after it is revealed that one is being bullied. And once this dialogue is initiated with the school, parents have the right and obligation to follow up until their child no longer feels threatened.

Employing peers is a very effective strategy. If the child has good friends, s/he will probably feel safer in their company. It has been shown that 9/10 times, bullying stops when someone stands up for the victim. The original Pink Shirt Day is a beautiful example of this fact.

Parents must NOT advise their children to fight back. Retaliation is not only ineffective, it will result in the child sustaining consequences and this is not how bullying will stop.

I like to encourage parents to role-play, or open a dialogue on strategies to increase their child’s self-confidence. Strategies such as learning to walk away, or finding a friend if they feel threatened in an immediate situation, can be very effective in teaching coping mechanisms. However, when bullying becomes a dangerous situation — physically or otherwise — it also threatens the child’s self-esteem and that cannot be easily fixed if allowed to continue. Many resources for ideas on dialogue about cyberbullying can be found at the Cyberbullying Research Center.

Q3. I have heard from parents who say that they’ve been unable to help their child when it comes to bullying at school. Is changing schools the only option?

The common practice of changing schools when bullying becomes uncontrollable is punishing the victim, and we have to phrase it that succinctly to illustrate to the schools and school boards that the child who is being bullied should not be the one to leave. In an ideal world, the bullying would stop, or the bully would be expelled.

However, within the culture of bullying there are those who take up the practice and become part of the group, making it more difficult to isolate just one problem. Ultimately, switching schools may be the only option because a parent’s first obligation is to protect the child and if the situation becomes too overwhelming to stop, that is the only option.

The problem is this: a child who is the target of bullying may be vulnerable in another school as well. There is no guarantee the child will not be bullied anywhere else. While there is never a reason for bullying to take place, we all know that kids who are different — whether that is intellectually, physically, socially or even in activities they partake in — are easy victims. Changing schools does not change the child, nor does it guarantee bullies will not be part of the new experience.

As well, changing schools puts the child at a disadvantage socially if s/he knows no one, academically if s/he comes in while the year is already in session and must catch up, or is feeling displaced, all of which could easily contribute to vulnerability and becoming a target of others.

It must always be an individual family decision, and the child’s opinion should be taken into account, but it has both its merits and its drawbacks. And yes, sometimes — though not easy — it is the only solution.

But bullying is not isolated to one school. Chances that there is a bullying problem in the new school are high. Instead, in my opinion, schools should adopt policies that are enforced in ways that are consistent, as well as continue to discuss bullying in classroom situations. Schools should be proactive if bullying is to stop or be reduced, not reactive which forces parents to make this decision.

This Q&A with Lissa Albert will continue tomorrow, where we discuss “What Should Schools Do about Bullying?”

Photo source is Stress Free Kids.


  1. Sarah McCormack says:

    lots of great info on a very complex topic. i often wonder whether bullying has gotten worse.. i don’t think it has. i think that is has just changed. cyberbullying etc. being an issue for this generation of kids. i also thing awareness and school support against bullying is so much better than when i was a kid. i remember telling a teacher, in grade 4, that a boy was picking on another child and she told me to “not be a tattle-tale”. that has always stayed with me.
    thanks for all the information Lissa, and Julie.

  2. Hi Sarah – you’re right, bullying has become worse and much of it is due to the internet and the ease of cyberbullying.

    It used to be a “rite of passage” and wasn’t frowned upon, just tolerated. I was bullied from the time I was in kindergarten, all the way through high school, by the same guy who lived across the street. But it didn’t become the school’s problem. Today, it would be.

    Thanks to Julie for giving me the opportunity to share this with everyone – don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can help out in any way!

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I had set up my children’s FB page just so I could put some restrictions on it: I always know your password & I will am always a friend and I will do spot checks from your devices every once in a while. I reserve those rights as a parent and they get to have fun. It has all worked very well so far (I have a 14 and an almost 17 year olds).

    • I think being involved, and being transparent about it, with your teens is absolutely essential. My kids aren’t there yet, but I will be following in your footsteps! I see having a cell phone as a teen to be a privilege not a right, and as such, it can be revoked!

  4. I think that schools should be a lot more strict and maybe there should be some type of legal punishment. You can’t bully other people at work so why in schools?


    • I guess it depends what one means when they use the term “bully” … if it was a criminal act (like causing physical harm) then charges can be laid I think, depending on the ages of the individuals involved.

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