Bullying with Words

Why name-calling hurts young teens

Photo by Monkey Business Images/iStockphoto.com

Twelve-year-old Jamie Lee was thrilled to be selected for his town’s hockey rep team. Sure his dad was assistant coach, but Jamie went through the same tryouts as everyone else. He was excited and proud until one of his teammates, who was also a classmate, began to pick on him. “You don’t deserve to be on the team,” the boy said. “You only got on because your dad’s a coach.” When he got other kids to join in, Jamie really began to doubt his ability to play. Every time he made an error on the ice, he felt worse.

When Jamie wore his rep team hockey shirt to school one day, that same teammate started the taunting again. “You have no right to wear that shirt to school,” he told Jamie. Crushed, Jamie never wore his rep team shirt to class again. He’s 20 now, but those memories are still painful.

For most people, the word “bully” conjures up images of one kid punching another when no adults are looking. But a lot of preteen bullying happens with words rather than fists.

And, says Debra Pepler of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution at York University in Toronto, “contrary to what people often believe, boys bully this way almost as often as girls.”

Pepler’s 2003 research found that about 40 percent of grade-six girls were involved in some kind of “social bullying,” including using hurtful or insulting words, telling rumours or deliberately ignoring a child. By grade nine, 65 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls had bullied kids in these ways.

What does this verbal aggression look like? “Generally, it is comments aimed at the child’s areas of vulnerability,” says Pepler. “The bully may poke fun at the child’s appearance, intelligence, grades, clothes, family, racial background, sexuality or sexual orientation — anything that a child might be sensitive about. Bullying is about power, so the goal is to destabilize and distress the victim — that’s what gives the bully a sense of power.”

The preteen and early teen years are a prime time for this type of bullying to increase, according to Pepler’s research. At this age, she explains, children are more concerned about what others think of them. They want to fit in and be popular, so criticism from peers can be devastating.

Unfortunately, teens don’t always tell their parents about being bullied, especially if it is done with words. What can you do if you suspect your child is being targeted?

• Open the lines of communication: Talk with your child about what’s going on at school or other activities.
• Ask in particular about friends, teasing and how your child is feeling.
• Watch for any changes such as a sudden reluctance to go to a certain activity, headaches in the morning before school or being unable to sleep because of anxiety.

If your child does report being bullied, Pepler says you should first let him know how important it was that he told you. You then need to go to the school (or hockey coach or whichever adult is supervising) to develop a plan to both support your child and teach the bully the relationship and empathy skills that are currently lacking — involving the bully’s parents too.

By intervening with children in the lower grades, we may be able to prevent the more severe bullying that can happen later during the teen years, Pepler says. “We need to recognize that this isn’t just a rite of passage that kids have to go through. It’s abuse. And kids need us to help stop it.”