Most of us have a mental picture of a bully. If you close your eyes you might see Scut Farkus from 1983’s A Christmas Story or, Biff Tannen, George McFly’s nemesis in Back to the Future. Typically we see bullies as obvious bad guys. That isn't always the case. Recently my daughter and I popped into an ice cream shop when I saw a situation that made me fume.
There were about six grown men ordering ice cream. (By grown I mean at least in their forties.) They were dressed in athletic clothing and looked like they had just finished a game of basketball. Obviously a group of friends who found a way to get some exercise, have some fun, and enjoy each other’s company. Male bonding at its finest- or so I thought. It wasn't long before their words wafted in our direction.
“Hey, what does the short one want?” I heard one guy ask another. I looked over to see a guy (also in athletic clothes) who was significantly shorter than the rest.
“Little guy, we need your order,” another one said. The shorter man’s demeanor told the story. He looked down, shoulders slumped, no eye contact. He said nothing. Victims of bullying seldom do. Even when they are grown men.
“I guess shorty needs a minute,” a third one chimed in. Group laughter followed.
Finally, the man who was being harassed stepped forward and quietly placed his order. How fun for him to be humiliated in front of a room full of strangers. The guys in the group were obviously his friends. They slapped him on the back, paid for his ice cream, sat at the same table. Their words didn’t match their actions. They were bullying their friend, and it was heartbreaking to witness. Did they know that they were bullying him? I don’t know. Did he know he was being bullied? Of course. It just isn't the kind of bullying that is easily spotted or easily talked about.
What we witnessed in the ice cream shop is relational bullying (think Mean Girls). According to the National Association of School Psychologists, it can be difficult for parents and teachers to recognize but just as harmful as more obvious types of bullying. It is most common in girls aged 10-13. Why is it such a popular form of bullying? Because it is very difficult to get caught. Many in peer groups allow relational bullying out of fear that if they speak up they will be targeted. Relational bullying can include teasing, eye rolling or negative body language, spreading rumors, exclusion from a social group, and making friendship conditional. Victims of relational bullying are more likely to: miss school, consider suicide, bring a weapon to school, suffer from anxiety and/or depression.
Parents should stay alert and watch their children for signs. Are they staying home from school (sick) more often than usual? How is their self confidence? Do they seem excited to talk about their day? Lack of eye contact, poor appetite, and social withdrawal can be all be clues of relational bullying. Smart phones, iPads, and computers can be problematic. Not only will a child hide behind an electronic device in an effort to keep their feelings hidden, they can also be victims of cyber bullying when they pick it up. Put down your own electronic device and look into your child’s eyes. If you feel that something is wrong, it probably is. Bullies and their victims come in all shapes and sizes.