I was bullied in ninth grade. An older kid used to wait for me outside the cafeteria, and as I left he would taunt me in front of his friends—even push me around. It went on for most of the year. Although I was scared, I never told a soul. I felt awful that I couldn’t stop it on my own. I had never been bullied before and have rarely been bullied since. Those memories are so vivid to me, as if the bullying happened yesterday. Sadly, when I sit back and reflect on that entire year of my life, I can remember little else.
The Need to Belong
Establishing and maintaining social connections is not a luxury; it is an innate need that all humans possess. When these bonds are threatened or disrupted, we experience fear and isolation, which can often lead to self-doubt. Bullying strikes at one of our most critical psychological needs—to belong. When we are ostracized, we lose the sense of protection that we instinctively associate with being connected socially. Human beings who feel connected are more likely to engage in activities that support personal and community development. Conversely, those who do not feel connected, who do not experience belonging, are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors. Children who are bullied are being denied this critical psychosocial need. Therefore, when a child is being bullied, it is a very serious situation.
A few years ago, we asked students in our schools about bullying. We asked them if they felt that bullying was just part of growing up. One-third of the respondents agreed, and another third said that they weren’t sure. Yet when asked if bullying had an impact on self-esteem, four out of five of the same students agreed that it did. It’s unfortunate that many students feel that bullying, which they have come to understand as having an impact on self-esteem, may simply be a part of life. In the same survey, over 90 percent of our students reported that they had witnessed incidents of bullying, but only 15 percent said that they had sought out the support of an adult in the school. These findings confirmed my thinking on bullying—that many of our students understand the power of bullying but do not feel comfortable or compelled to enlist the support of an adult. Students often feel that the situation might get worse or that they might become victims themselves, but many also understand these behaviors to be just “part of growing up.” We need to change that.
Counselors need to be part of the solution when it comes to bullying. We can’t wait for the kids to come to us because guess what? From what I can see, they’re not coming. We must be proactive by getting in classrooms, running workshops, being a visible presence in the school and asking students, “Are you okay?” It must be a priority for us to get the message out that bullying is not just a part of growing up; it’s profoundly serious and can have a significant impact on the development of a child. Everyone who spends time in a school needs to know that it’s imperative to reach out when bullying occurs. When we don’t, we abandon another human being to suffer the pains of humiliation and rejection. That’s just not acceptable. When we offer support, guidance and encouragement to victims of bullying, we create a relationship that fosters a greater sense of belonging, which is critical in developing self-confidence and a personal sense of well-being.
Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.