One of my earliest memories of being bullied happened at a sleepover with my friend, Dan. We were outside playing in a sandbox. Living in a small town, we had friends who lived within walking distance. Before long, two neighbor kids joined us. But they didn’t want to play in the sand.
Instead, my “friends” decided to play a game where we threw stones at one another—except they didn’t allow me to throw.
I was pelted in the head, legs, stomach, face, and arms. The more I pleaded for mercy, the harder the stones came. I cried. They called me a sissy.
The Rules Have Changed
Fortunately, no one else knew about that stoning. There was no YouTube video. No pictures on Instagram. Facebook didn’t exist. Neither did Snapchat or cell phones. That shameful day wasn’t recorded and posted for our entire school to see.
Bullying in the 21st century is much different than years past. Fists flying at the flagpole in front of a small crowd after school are now tactless words, oftentimes anonymous, on places like Ask.fm. Or they’re very specific, incredibly hurtful messages that disappear in 3 seconds on Snapchat.
Stones hurt. I felt shame that day. I’m just grateful it wasn’t multiplied times hundreds of peers and prolonged for weeks.
Facts About Cyberbullying
The problem with bullying today is heightened by the fact that victims of cyberbullying are more likely to have suicidal ideation and more suicidal attempts than kids not bullied online. Even online bullies themselves are found to be more likely to have suicidal ideation than other kids.
With the sophistication of social networks, the shame tends to be felt more deeply. Once nasty messages and unattractive photos are sent through cellphones, they may reemerge later, causing anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression are increasing among Generation Z, and many researchers believe screens are a major reason (though the research is still too green for direct correlation). Cyberbullying exacerbates the feelings of inadequacy, leaving kids feeling anxious, afraid, and depressed. Signs include withdrawing from parents, friends, and activities. Schoolwork, grades, and behavior also tend to regress.
Why Relationships at Home Matter
The attachment a child develops with the parent sets the stage for how they regulate emotion and view relationship experiences. When a child feels safe and loved by mom and dad, it sets the basis for healthy self-esteem, which in turn is the foundation for empathy. Empathetic kids are not bullies.
I believe in today’s world of increased divorce rates, fatherlessness, and busy schedules, kids are under more relational stress at home. To relieve the stress, they are looking for affirmation in other places, namely, picking on others. But even more than the structure of the environment, research shows it’s the quality of the relationship with the parent that matters most.
How We Can Help Our Kids
Be Empathetic. One of the biggest things we need to admit as parents when it comes to bullying is humbly admitting what we don’t know. The biggest request of many bullied kids and teens brave enough to ask for help is, “Please don’t tell my parents.” In fact, only 10% of teens tell their parents if they become a victim of cyberbullying.
I have watched many parents on both sides of the spectrum—either their kids are being bullied or their kids are the bullies—either deny the seriousness of the situation as only a “phase,” or “kids just being kids” or even blame their own kids for getting bullied and not fighting back. Both situations add insult to injury. Ignoring our child’s shame only increases it. What our kids need are empathy, safety, and love.
Don’t be Naïve. Secondly, I know parents never want to assume the worst about their kids. I often hear, “My son/daughter would never do that.” However, I want to warn you that sexting (sending sexually explicit pictures to another via text message) is more common than you think, even among Christian teenagers.
But what happens when the teen fling is over? Who has those pictures and messages? Perhaps the scorned ex? Though sending cruel messages and spreading rumors are the most common forms of cyberbullying, circulating sexually suggestive pictures has become one of the most shame-filled ways of bullying another. I cannot emphasize to kids and teens enough the risks of taking pictures of themselves they would later be embarrassed to have others see.
Take What Your Kids Tell You Seriously. My niece volunteers with a program started by her principal called The Listening Post. College students sit on one side of a curtain while high school students who are bullied or contemplating suicide can talk to someone who simply listens on the other side. My niece is a high school student who listens to elementary students being bullied online. Yes, elementary students.
The pain in today’s kids has become mainstream—meaning that unless a student is cutting themselves or talking about suicide, few people pay attention to them. As ministers of the gospel, find ways to partner with other parents and school administrators in your community. Our students should know they could safely come to us to listen to what they’re going through without judgment or shame.
As my niece told me, “We just need one person to listen to us and take us seriously. Many kids I know today don’t have that.”
Set and Talk About Limits. Understand that as long as your children live under your roof, they play by your rules. I have helped countless parents put safeguards on their Internet and teenagers’ cell phones because of pornography. Bullying is just as bad.
When it comes to cell phone and Internet usage, limit the times of day your kids can be online or using their cellphones. Know who they are talking to online and talk to them about the risks of sending embarrassing pictures to others or giving out their internet or cellphone passwords. I know it sounds crazy, but most kids and teens today are sharing their passwords with friends because it’s a sign of trust.
Be Safe. As a parent, we influence our children more than any other person. I mentioned earlier the importance of the quality of the relationship with the parent.
If you are a single mother, find godly male mentors to help speak into and be safe in your child’s life. If you are too busy, find ways to slow down. Make your spouse and children the priority over your work, other relationships, and hobbies. We talk a lot about this on our podcast.
Follow Deuteronomy 6 and be available to talk to your kids when they wake, during meal times and drive times, and when they go to bed at night. Use the mundane times of the day to be emotionally available to your kids and listen to their hearts. They may not always share with you, but it only takes that one moment. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share what’s going on and have empathy for others.
We have a community of other parents called 22:6 Parenting we’d love to invite you into. We create content and have coaching around the 4 key times of the day in Deuteronomy 6. You can learn more at www.226parenting.com.
Josh and Christi Straub are speakers, authors, and marriage and family coaches. They are Co-hosts of the “In This Together” podcast, co-authors of their new Bible study Homegrown, and they lead an online community of parents called 22:6 Parenting. Josh (PhD) is a professor of child psychology and the author of Safe House: How Emotional Safety Is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well. Josh and Christi have two fun-loving kids, Landon and Kennedy, and a feisty puppy named Copper.