Heather Kleiboer, at left, Mabel-Canton's district secretary and coordinator of community education events, stands with Jeff Reiland, certified play therapist supervisor, during the special program on bullying held at Mabel-Canton last week.
Heather Kleiboer, at left, Mabel-Canton's district secretary and coordinator of community education events, stands with Jeff Reiland, certified play therapist supervisor, during the special program on bullying held at Mabel-Canton last week.
The more schools involve parents, and the more parents take an interest in their children's lives, the more effective anti-bullying programs will be.

That was the message last week at Mabel-Canton during a "Parents as partners against bullying" presentation sponsored by Kohl's Cares, Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation and Gundersen Lutheran Pediatrics and Behavioral Health.

Presenter Jeff Reiland, M.S., is a certified play therapist supervisor who has worked in marriage and family therapy counseling at Gundersen Lutheran for 26 years.

What is bullying?

Reiland defined bullying as "the unprovoked physical or psychological abuse of an individual by one student or a group of students over time to create an ongoing pattern of harassment and abuse."

Types of bullying include verbal and physical bullying, such as hitting, slapping, tripping, shoving, spitting, name calling, chanting and taunting; and cyberbullying, the use of computers, the internet - such as Facebook - and cell phones. This includes texting or sending messages to hurt and socially humiliate and isolate others.

Reiland said the reason more and more kids have taken to bullying in cyberspace, is because it's "easy and anonymous."

"Ninety-three percent of students go online for two hours a day. Seventy-three percent of kids social network, and 39 percent have been harassed through a social networking site," said Reiland.

Reiland added other reasons kids choose to bully in cyberspace is that it takes less courage and energy to insult and control peers.

"There are no immediate consequences and there is a lack of supervision by parents or teachers," said Reiland.

Reiland added in some ways cyberbullying can be worse than physical or verbal abuse, because it is limitless.

"Kids are victims of constant bullying, not only at school, but now in a child's safe space. They never get a break," said Reiland.

He added the reason cyberbullying is growing so quickly is due to an explosion in internet and cell phone use and a growing number of younger users. He also cited lack of uniform training and guidelines for use and a lack of skill and understanding from what he called "digital immigrants," people or parents who are new to or unfamiliar with current technology.

Warning signs

Reiland said warning signs that parents should look for with regard to cyberbullying include students becoming more secretive about cell phone and computer use, refraining from computer use, more sadness and anger associated with computer or cell phone use, loss of interest in homework or school or loss of friends or avoiding people or school.

"This can affect all children at all ages," he said.

Reiland said children who are typically bullied are those who have "different" abilities.

"They can be exceptional, have learning or physical disabilities, emotional and behavioral problems, social-relationship problems, self-regulation difficulties or may not be able to pick up on social cues," he said.

"The fear of being bullied is so great that an estimated 160,000 students in the U.S. stay home every day from school to avoid being bullied," he said.

When attending school, Reiland said victims or potential victims of bullying tend to avoid places where they are most likely to run into bullies, such as the cafeteria, the playground or the restroom.

"Schools just don't have enough staff to monitor all areas of the school," he said.

Effects

Long-term effects bullying can have on a child include low self-esteem, depression, living in fear and torment, poor academic achievement, emotional turmoil, physical abuse and suicidal thoughts and gestures.

"Being bullied is frequently a factor resulting in referral of adolescents for psychiatric services. In addition, victims may be twice as likely to commit suicide," said Reiland.

What to do

Reiland said the single-most effective way to reduce bullying is often one of the hardest things for children to do: Report bullying.

"They can tell anyone: a parent, teacher, custodian or lunch lady," he said.

In addition, he encourages students to ignore the bullying, use humor to diffuse the bully's power, or seek out other social groups and situations that promote positive peer relationships and limit contact with bullies and situations where bullying is likely.

"This is much harder in a small school," he said.

He also encourages victims to stay calm, as getting upset and reacting only encourages the bully.

"Walk away. Avoid places or situations where you might be vulnerable. Be assertive. Ask the other child if they want to go with you to the teacher or some other adult to discuss the situation," he said.

He added bystanders to bullying can be "upstanders," by sticking up for someone being bullied or reporting the behavior to someone in a position of authority.

Understanding the bully

When trying to understand bullies, Reiland said it's not that simple.

"It's a broad group and it's not always who you might expect. There is no one stereotype or set of traits that accurately describes this group of students," he said.

"We need to be as concerned about the bullies as we are about those being bullied. They don't always grow out of it," he said.

Reiland added once someone who bullies has been identified, the adults in his or her life should do their best to help the child build empathy for others.

He said there appears to be a strong relationship between children who bully other children in school and also bully siblings at home.

What parents can do

Reiland said the key component to parents dealing with bullies and children being bullied is to be involved in their lives at home and at school.

"Establish frequent communication with the school teacher or principal if you are concerned about bullying and your child. Attend meetings for your child. Be part of their school experience. Get involved in your child's school," he said.

He said stopping bullying is about developing healthy social relationships and modeling social relationships.

Things to avoid

Reiland outlined a number of things for concerned parents to avoid when dealing with a bullying situation.

He suggested parents not confront the bully or his or her parents, not encourage a child to use aggression and not confront the school and insist the bully be punished.

"Bullying is not the end of the road. It's just a bump in the road," said Reiland.

He suggested a number of rules for the classroom and life: "We will be kind. We will not bully others. We will try to help students who are left out. We will include others. If we know that someone is being treated poorly, we will tell an adult at school or at home."

Reaction

Daylon Jacobson, a fifth grader at Mabel Canton, said he was glad he attended the presentation.

"I wanted to come because I wanted to find out if I am being bullied," he said. "I definitely learned some things."

For more information about ways to cope with bullying behavior, visit www.togetheragainstbullying. org.