It’s an issue many of us have agonized over. Bullying is a universal worry, whether your kid’s being bullied, is the bully or has witnessed it. You may have read about the devastating case of Mallory Grossman, a 12-year-old girl from Rockaway who committed suicide in 2017 after being intensely bullied. Mallory was an avid gymnast, cheerleader and lover of the outdoors. Her mother, Dianne Grossman, describes her as compassionate, kind and loving. Mallory grew up in a loving home and had a lot of friends. She made and sold jewelry to raise money for a camp for kids and adults battling cancer. Yet, she still took her own life.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently announced the state will spend $6 million on mental health training for school and college employees. The move to address mental health comes in the wake of 100 documented suicides in 2017 among people ages 15-24, the highest number in NJ since the 1990s.
Mallory’s tragic death inspired her mother to launch Mallory’s Army Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting bullying. The group’s trademark motto—“Blue Out Bullying”—is represented in the form of a blue rubber bracelet with #MallorysArmy. The bracelet was inspired by researchers from Princeton, Rutgers and Yale Universities who discovered that when students take a stand against bullying—as opposed to adults—the results are a lot more impactful. “Our children need a physical reminder of what they stand for,” Grossman recently said to a group of parents at George Washington Middle School in Ridgewood.
While bullying generally begins during elementary school, it peaks in grades 6 through 8 and continues, though less frequently, through high school, according to the Commissioner’s Annual Report to the Education Committees of the Senate and Assembly on Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse in NJ Public Schools.
The stats on juvenile bullying from the US Department of Justice are alarming:
- 30 percent of students in grades 6 through 10 in the US are involved in moderate or frequent bullying either as bullies, victims or both.
- 43 percent of students surveyed fear harassment in the school bathroom.
- Every seven minutes a child is bullied on the playground, 4 percent of the time there’s adult intervention; 11 percent of the time there’s peer intervention, and 85 percent of the time there’s no intervention.
These are just some of the numbers Grossman shared from state and federal data compiled by the NJ Department of Education during her school visit. Grossman travels to schools around the state teaching parents, students and educators how to combat bullying. Here are some of her biggest takeaways:
Kids need to learn how to deal with someone who doesn’t like them.
Learning to have a relationship with your bully is one of the keys to resiliency.
Don’t defend bad behavior.
Never say things like, “kids will be kids.” As a parent, tell them it’s never okay to belittle someone about their clothes, hair or anything else.
Have an honest conversation with your kid.
Ask them, “have you ever considered hurting yourself?” If they answer yes, say, “okay, we can fix that.” Be upfront when asking if they’ve ever had suicidal thoughts or curiosity about suicide. Let them know it takes a lot of courage to say they aren’t liked at school and thank them for speaking up. Most importantly, keep the conversation going by asking them to tell you more and being an attentive listener.
Sensitivity is the number one common trait of kids who commit suicide, Grossman says.
Mallory wasn’t shy or reserved, but was very sensitive. Incessant bullying led her to hide in the bathroom stall to eat her lunch. Understanding that kids are affected differently by their surroundings, especially those who are highly sensitive, will go a long way towards learning how to help kids and teens dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Get to know your child’s school.
Is the staff trained in HIB (Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying policies)? In addition to teachers and administrators, are librarians, volunteers, aides and others who have everyday contact with kids, especially in the cafeteria or on the playground, trained in how to spot and deal with bullying? Beyond your child’s school, it’s important to get to know your Board of Education members. Go to meetings and find out what they stand for. Do you as a parent know how to report bullying and cyberbullying? Does your school district use programs like HIBster or STOPit to report and track incidents of bullying? Talk to your school administration or school board about programs like these; the cost may be covered by insurance.
Inspire them to be empathetic.
Volunteering inspires empathy, and empathy builds upstanders. An upstander speaks up when he or she witnesses someone being bullied. Encourage your kids to have the courage to be upstanders and let them know it will make a huge difference. Ask them about a cause that matters to them and encourage them to support it. Finally, challenge them to use social media for good.
Talk to your kids about the dynamics of their friend groups.
Relational bullying (when one day someone is your friend and the next they aren’t) is common and a big stressor for kids.
Discuss whether your kids really need to bring their cell phones to school.
Grossman is a firm believer that smartphones don’t belong in schools. Elementary and middle school kids, she says, aren’t mature enough to handle them. Grossman isn’t alone in this belief. Wait Until 8th is a movement that encourages parents to rally together and delay giving children a smartphone until at least grade 8. Recent research from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that kids who get smartphones in elementary school versus later in childhood are more likely to be involved in cyber bullying. If your child needs a phone to communicate with you, Grossman suggests a simple flip phone to use only as needed.
Spot-check your kid’s phone.
Your children should not be using an app you don’t understand. Look for red flags in group chats and texts. Do they have a Finsta (fake Instagram account)? Remind your kids that nothing on their phones is private. Make sure you know every password (to their phone, Snapchat, Instagram, Xbox, TikTok and any other apps they’re using). If your child was abducted, it could take months to get their password information from authorities, Grossman warns.
Talk to them about social media and perception.
Remind them that social media always shows a life that looks a lot better than reality. Social media and phones bring cyberbullying home, so keep phones out of your kids’ rooms at night. Get a manual alarm clock and have everyone in your house sign a contract about phone use. Go to Common Sense‘s website to find a Family Media Contract.
Turn bullying incidents into teachable moments.
It’s important to ask a bully, whether it’s your kid or not, to apologize for his or her behavior. Suggest three letters of apology: one to the victim, one to the family and one to the principal. Actions like these inspire kids to be people they’d want to meet themselves.
Model good behavior.
Our kids look up to us, so it’s important to be conscious of our language and how we treat others. Be kind to strangers. Put the phone down and be present.
To find out how to invite Dianne Grossman to speak at your child’s school, go to mallorysarmy.org.