Bullying Awareness Week: Understanding bullies, shedding light on why they need help, too

ABOVE: Toronto students take a stand during bullying awareness week. Lama Nicolas reports. 

TORONTO – It’s not just bullying victims on the other end of the phone line when counsellor Shannon Freud takes calls at Kids Help Phone. Sometimes, it’s the perpetrator.

There’s the girl in Grade 5 who was worried sick because she gossiped about her friend behind her back, or the 15-year-old boy who was sent to the principal’s office too many times because he would lash out and get into fistfights with classmates.

In her eight years of fielding calls at Kids Help Phone, Freud says that now and then, bullies will phone in. And they’re trying to understand what they’ve done.

“The kids that I talk to, they don’t like that they’re behaving like this. If they had their choice, and they didn’t have to behave that way, my guess is that they wouldn’t,” Freud said.

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“When kids call about bullying behaviour, it’s because they’re concerned. They notice something in themselves,” she told Global News.

READ MORE: Kids Help Phone experts assist youth dealing with bullying, self-harm among other issues

This week, some parts of Canada and the rest of the world are marking Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week. The designated week is meant to shed light on bullying and its effect on well-being.

Countless stories focus on the victim, but some experts say that there should be focus on the bully, too.

“It’s an interaction. Bullying is about a relationship – you absolutely need to know what’s going on with both sides of the equation. It also involves people witnessing the abuse and people encouraging it,” Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt said.

She’s a University of Ottawa professor and Canada Research Chair in children’s mental health and violence prevention.

Bullying may seem trivial in the grand scheme of life as we get older, but Freud wants parents to remember: for kids, their peers are who they’re surrounded with for most of their days. And this same group of children can grow up together from pre-school up until the end of high school.

“It’s such an influential time in their lives,” Freud said, especially singling out the teenage years.

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“They rely so much on their peers, and move away from family for external validation and approval. Their peers’ opinion really matters to them so if other kids are talking about them, calling them names, pushing, shoving – at the teen stage of their lives, that’s really going to affect them,” she explained.

Video: Global News report on the parents of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons awarded by Beyond Borders

Why some kids bully

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When scientists dissect bullying, or what they sometimes call ‘aggressors,’ a complex web of behaviour unfolds. There are a lot of reasons why some of us bully.

Freud says there’s more to bullying than adults realize. When kids call in, she asks them to talk through how their days went, anything that may be causing stress in their lives or their relationship with family members.

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Sometimes kids bully because they’re afraid they’ll be victimized – Freud says they’re trying to redirect negative attention onto others instead. Or they’re insecure and worried that other kids may be posing a threat on their own status.

“They’re looking for a way to feel better about themselves, an external validation,” Freud said.

READ MORE: Young Minds: Boys aren’t reaching out for mental health help in great numbers

Vaillancourt says there are two distinct groups of bullies. The first profile typically makes up about 10 per cent of bullying cases – the kids may be impulsive, have poor emotional self-regulation, they’re quick to anger and are marginalized by their peers. Their family background also tends to be more complicated, with a history of violence or impoverished backgrounds, Vaillancourt says.

They may be impatient with a low tolerance when frustrated. Studies have suggested that these kids tend be diagnosed with ADHD or other attention deficit issues.

“If someone knocks them by accident when walking by, they see a threat where you and I wouldn’t see a threat. They’re quick to react,” she explained.

READ MORE: Cyberbullying rarely the sole cause in teen suicides: Canadian research

The other group tends to bully with a goal in mind. At the heart of it, their bullying boils down to creating and maintaining power, according to Vaillancourt.

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Think of popular kids, like athletes for example. They have a high social status and power among their peers. They bully to achieve and maintain power, but it’s unclear if the bullying gets them to the top of the schoolyard hierarchy or if the bullying just keeps them there.

Video: Amanda Todd’s mother talks to Global News

And why do their peers tolerate it?

“It’s because challenging them carries a risk.  If you challenge a powerful person, then you risk being their next victim,” Vaillancourt said. But the bully’s peer group doesn’t recognize how much power they have as a collective.

Identifying the bully and offering help

Pay attention to what’s going on in your kids’ lives and show interest. Freud suggests asking yourself if your child seems happy and content with life or if he or she has other things on their mind.

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Vaillancourt said that identifying a bully in your child isn’t that difficult to do. It’s just that it’s overlooked.

“It’s so obvious, I don’t know why parents are so blind to this,” she said.

READ MORE: Stigma keeps youth suffering from mental health issues in the dark

With kids who have problems working through their emotions – the first of the two groups Vaillancourt identified – parents will know because they’re often making visits to the principal or the teacher.

If you see your kids interacting at home, and one sibling is clearly picking on the other, don’t be surprised if that child is also bullying kids on the playground, Vaillancourt warns.

The other group Vaillancourt identified was those who bully to maintain power and control. They may be a bit more sly.

“They’re not called to the mat for their behaviour very often and when they’re called, parents may deny the case,” Vaillaincourt said.

The best thing to do, in this case, is to acknowledge the bad behaviour. Talk to your kids and give them an outlet to work through their feelings, Freud suggests. Don’t be judgmental, either.

In one phone call, a young boy was worried about the way he’d been acting out and physically hurting his classmates.

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Freud was the first person he confided in and let her know that his parents were getting divorced. Freud told him that he could phone back every day to talk if he needed to.

“If people don’t have a resource to let their feelings out, they can lash out and it can come like an explosion,” Freud said.

“We encourage healthy and positive communication.”

More about the week

Bullying Awareness Week ends on Nov. 23. The organizers suggest that supporters can tweet this message put together by the campaign:

This #BullyingAwarenessWeek, take a stand against cyberbullying. Pause before your post. Report hurtful comments. Promote respect. #BAW13 

Read more about Bullying Awareness Week here.

In 2012 alone, Kids Help Phone counsellors answered over 230,000 additional counselling minutes compared to 2011. Each week, about 5,000 young people reach out online or over the phone.

Kids accessed the organization’s counselling forums, therapeutic tools and other information 5.4 million times in 2012. The bullying subject often gets the most clicks in online forums as readers sift through tips.

Kids Help Phone provides youth with an online workbook and other empathy-developing exercises.

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