Much has been written about bullying and the impact on adolescent development. We know that it just takes one friend to increase the sense of safety and inclusion and reduce the impact of bullying on vulnerable youth. Teens have been taught to stand up for themselves, get help from an adult and to speak up as bystanders to push back against bullying. All of this is making a difference — helping kids feel safer and protected.
But what about when the bully is an adult; a teacher, coach, parent or other authority figure? Sadly, this happens all too often. Consider the following situations:
· A student was working with lab materials on his desk and one of the items accidently fell on the floor. The teacher lost his temper and yelled, “are you stupid?” to the boy, who quickly retrieved the materials and got back to work. Several years later the teacher was fired for throwing a trash can at a student. How many students had to endure this teacher’s harsh and destructive behavior during the intervening years?
· At a recreation league basketball game, a father became upset with the youth referee’s call and stormed at the officials, halting the game. He cursed loudly and aggressively and was told to leave. He refused and several parents had to physically pull him out of the gym to allow the game to go on. The remaining parents and teens were understandably shaken up. Many wondered what goes on in this family’s home.
· A police officer witnessed two middle schoolers “horse-playing” in the subway. He approached them thinking they may be fighting. One of the boys was less than cooperative and talked back to the police officer. Instead of effectively deescalating, the situation devolved into the boy being thrown to the ground and forcibly placed in handcuffs to the horror of the other riders in the train car. He spent the night in juvenile detention and was picked up by his parent in the morning.
We live in a time where bullying, disrespectful and inappropriate behavior by adults is seen frequently in the news and in public. With social media, adults who “lose it” go viral and are seen by thousands and thousands of young people in an instant. What can we do? The same principles we teach teens apply when adults are the bullies:
1. Say something. Set limits with the bully and consider telling a superior. This can be awkward when it’s another adult, but who else is going to do it? Consider approaching it gently so your message is heard, “I noticed you lost your cool with a student the other day, I know that kid is frustrating – is there anything I can do to help? I worry that yelling at him is just modeling the behavior you want him to eliminate.” Yes, this is a difficult conversation. Youth are relying on us to initiate it.
2. Support youth who are being mistreated. When a young person tells you about adult bullying or you witness it yourself, provide support. Teens lack authority in these situations and need adults to come to their aid and guide them on next steps.
3. Validate. Allow teens to process the experience. Let them know you understand their frustration, sense of betrayal, and anxiety. Tell them that this behavior is not acceptable, needs to be addressed and help them figure out a plan for addressing it (assisting as necessary).
4. Lead by example. Schools, teams, youth groups and businesses demonstrating the highest levels of kindness and respect often have leaders who value these traits. Be that person in your organization. Create a culture of respect and kindness.
Teens rely on us to protect them, model effective mood management, and set a standard for behavior. When adults miss the mark, be the one that makes a difference; step in and help. You might be the only one who does.
Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C