Take action when adults bully young people

When authority figures bully young people, caring adults have a responsibility to take the situations seriously and intervene carefully.

While countless news stories have highlighted issues of youth-on-youth bullying, far less coverage has focused on adults who bully young people. A recent example of adult-on-youth bullying that received significant news coverage involved a 10-year-old New Jersey boy whose father resorted to sending his son to school with a hidden tape recorder to document the ongoing verbal abuse he had been experiencing from his teacher and the teacher’s aide.

There has been much less focus on adult-on-youth bullying within scholarly research, but conversations with kids may provide adults with “data” about this issue. Many young people readily share examples of adult bullying, as well as their concerns about how adult power plays into these situations. While the vast majority of adults who work with youth in schools and other youth settings are caring, committed and conscientious about their work, adults who bully kids can pose significant risks for their victims. When young people or other adults confront adult bullies such as teachers, coaches or youth leaders, the results can involve more humiliation, being given unfairly low grades, loss of playing time or less involvement in special activities.

Adults who care about young people first and foremost have a responsibility to step up and work to end these kinds of harmful behaviors. Several strategies can be helpful when young people disclose that adult bullying is taking place:

  • Listen deeply and probe for more information.
    Adults’ responses can run the gamut from disregard and disbelief (“that can’t be true”) to voicing a desire for revenge and retaliation (“no one’s getting away with this”). Respond in a way that shows you care about kids’ safety and well-being and ask questions that draw out their thoughtful reflections. Work with the child to create a written account of what happened.
  • Stay calm.
    When learning that someone you care about is being harmed, your instinct might be to react quickly and out of anger. Use techniques to calm yourself (like taking deep breaths) and be aware of your thoughts and feelings before moving to action. Modeling this is a powerful teaching tool for kids.
  • Ask the young person’s opinion.
    Because kids are at the center of the situation and most at risk for experiencing consequences of any action you take, it’s important to ask how they’d like you to move forward. Find the balance between hearing their concerns andmaking it clear that your utmost responsibility is addressing their safety and well-being.
  • When meeting with the adult, be prepared, respectful and clear.
    Find out ahead of time if the setting has a policy or code of conduct related to adult behaviors. During the meeting, share what’s been reported to you, how the situation is affecting the young person’s ability to learn or participate fully in the setting, and how the reported behaviors relate to the setting’s policy. If the adult seems concerned, regretful and apologetic, ask how he or she plans to follow up with the child. If your concerns are dismissed or not taken seriously, share that you plan to follow up with a supervisor to make sure the situation is addressed.
  • Don’t confuse bullying with harassment.
    If a situation involves mean-spirited, hurtful language and behaviors that target a young person based on group membership (such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability and religious differences), schools and other settings may have legal responsibilities to address what’s happening. (Visit the article, "Don’t Confuse Bullying With Harassment," to learn more.)
  • After taking action, follow up with the young person.
    Kids need to know that adults take these issues seriously, and it’s important to share as much information as possible about the action being taken and what kids can expect the next time they encounter the adult. It’s also important to determine if a child needs additional kinds of support, such as help from a school counselor.

Recognizing that kids aren’t the only people who carry out bullying behaviors – that adults also have a responsibility to examine their own behaviors and what they’re modeling – is an important aspect in creating safe, affirming and fair environments for kids. Visit the article "Adults who bully vs. adults who care: Adult behaviors are powerful modeling tools" to learn more about critiquing your own behaviors. Also consider ways you can help young people build and practice positive skills for confronting hurtful adults by visiting the article titled “Help young people build skills for confronting bullies of any age."

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