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When “Friends” Are the Ones Doing the Bullying

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Babble is partnering with PACER Center in honor of the 11th anniversary of National Bullying Prevention Month this October. Visit PACER.org/bullying to learn more about how you can be part of the movement to unite against bullying and promote kindness, acceptance, and inclusion among children.

Though one in five students are bullied, they often keep it to themselves; an amazing 64 percent of children don’t tell their parents or another adult they are being bullied.

There are a number of reasons for their silence, says Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. “Sometimes a student feels the bullying is something they need to fix on their own. Students may also fear that if the child who is bullying them is called on their behavior, things will get worse.”

Even when a student tells an adult they are being bullied, they often downplay what is happening because they are embarrassed or find it hard to talk about what they’re experiencing, Hertzog notes.

“Also, the student may not be clear about what is and isn’t bullying behavior,” she adds.

That’s what happened to Ava, who was bullied by two girls who had been longtime friends. After weeks of bullying behavior, the 10-year-old went to her mother, Jenny, for help.

“I found it hard to understand what was happening,” Jenny tells Babble. “I wondered if the girls were just having some differences. I told Ava that friends don’t always agree and sometimes they even argue or stop talking for a while. I encouraged Ava to try and work things out. It didn’t occur to me that Sophie and Jada could be Ava’s friends one week and bully her the next.”

A few days later, Ava told her mom that the girls were calling her names, and Jenny thought for the first time that this might be more than a conflict between friends.

“I encouraged Ava to tell me everything that had happened with Sophie and Jada, and she started to cry as she did,” Jenny shares. “A pattern of repeated, intentional behavior emerged.”

Sophie had started to call Ava names, Jada posted a rumor online that was read by other kids at school, and both girls told other friends not to sit with Ava at lunch.

“It was confusing for Ava,” says Jenny, “because sometimes the girls would say ‘Just kidding!’ and that Ava was ‘taking it the wrong way.’ She wanted their friendship and at first overlooked the off-and-on relationship. It was only when she felt afraid that Ava talked to me about it. I realized that the bullying had started right around the time she had started having problems sleeping and saying she didn’t like school. I felt bad that I had not put two and two together and figured out what was happening.”

According to Herzog, however, “Ava’s reactions are common among children who are bullied.” Studies back that up, too: according to the Centers for Disease Control, children who are bullied commonly have a negative view of school, experience physical symptoms, low self-esteem, and mental health issues such as depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety.

Jenny listened to Ava’s concerns and respected her feelings.

“We’ll get through this together, honey,” she told her, while helping Ava understand the difference between conflicts between friends and bullying.

“Friends don’t always agree,” Jenny said. “But they don’t deliberately try to hurt you. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness, and that’s how true friends act.”

Jenny encouraged Ava to seek new relationships and they worked together on ideas about how to make new friends. It wasn’t long before Ava joined a dance group and met other kids who shared her interests, which helped put the experience behind her.

Still, being bullied is painful, and it took time for Ava to rebuild her self-confidence.

“It was important that Ava realize that there was nothing wrong with her, and that she had done nothing to provoke her former friends,” Jenny tells Babble.

Hertzog adds that students should learn that they don’t have to handle bullying alone, and that it’s okay to involve an adult. It’s also important for the adult to involve the student in problem solving.

“When a student is able to tell an adult what they want and need,” Hertzog shares, “they are developing self-advocacy skills, which help them move past negative experiences and gain a sense of control.”

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