This series of posts explores the tricky side of middle school. Here’s post #8 – Mean and Bullying Behaviors. If you missed earlier posts, here are links: #1 – Judgment, #2 – Friendship Changes, #3 – Popularity, #4 – Crushes & Dating, # 5 – Cliques & Groups, #6 – Gossip and #7 – Social Media.
While researching Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised, I visited 7th-grade classrooms and talked with students about school social dynamics. When I asked preteens to share middle school’s “tricky” aspects, “bullying and mean behaviors” came up frequently.
A student I’ll call Thomas shared this story. ”Last year, a really popular kid picked on and threatened me. He would judge me, but no one would stand up because they might get picked on too. Eventually, I asked my friends if they noticed he was picking on me, and they said yes, but they didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Bullying in Middle School Statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control, bullying peaks during the middle school years. Reports of bullying are highest in middle schools (28%), followed by high schools (16%) and primary schools (9%). As Thomas experienced, it is common for bystanders to avoid getting involved.
Middle School Student Feedback on Mean and Bullying Behaviors
- “It typically happens outside of school or in areas where teachers aren’t around.”
- “The most hurtful things are said on social media. People also post pictures that others don’t want to be shared.”
- “Girls look you up and down and give you this sly smirk that says you’re not cool enough.”
Mean Versus Bullying Behaviors
Understanding the difference between mean and bullying behaviors helps students and schools know how to respond. Signe Whitson, the author of 8 Keys to End Bullying and other titles, shares the following definitions.
Mean behavior is saying or doing something to hurt a person.
Bullying is a cruel act done on purpose, and repeatedly that may involve a real or perceived imbalance of power.
Context is important to understand meanness versus bullying. Regardless, both behaviors are not okay and can be painful for kids and parents.
Responding to Mean Behavior
Dealing with mean behavior is a part of life that we all learn to handle. With guidance and support, kids develop skills to deal with meanness, such as speaking up, learning resilience, conflict resolution and putting energy into kind friendships instead. As parents and caregivers, it’s essential to validate a child’s feelings when someone’s mean to them and help them decide how they’d like to respond. (Ignore, speak up, etc.)
Responding to Bullying Behavior
Bullying, however, is a different matter and needs to be addressed. Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Bullies try to have more social or physical power over their targets. They try to make their targets cry, feel scared, or lose their temper. And bullying has lasting adverse effects.
Middle School Students’ Advice on How To Respond to Mean and Bullying Behaviors
- “Don’t let others get to you, and always have a comeback at the ready. Keep your head up high.”
- “Stick with trustworthy friends that will stand up for you and support you. Speak to an adult if you need help.”
- “As my mom always says, you don’t have to be friends with everybody, but there is no reason to be mean.”
Solutions to bullying are not simple. The most effective bullying prevention approaches confront the problem from many angles. They involve the entire school community—students, families, administrators, teachers, and staff such as bus drivers, nurses, counselors, cafeteria staff, etc.—in creating a culture of respect.
Unkind behavior is unfortunately common at all ages, especially in middle school. These painful moments provide families and schools an opportunity to revisit conversations about meanness and bullying. They also offer an opportunity for caregivers to make sure kids feel heard and to help them navigate difficult emotions and situations. If your child feels overwhelmed by mean or bullying behavior, be sure to get support from the school or a professional.
About Jessica Speer
Jessica Speer is the highly acclaimed author of books for kids and teens, including The Phone Book - Stay Safe, Be Smart, and Make the World Better with the Powerful Device in Your Hand. She is also the author of the award-winning, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships and Middle School - Safety Goggles Advised, both of which grew out of her work with kids. Blending science, stories, and fun activities, her writing unpacks tricky stuff that surfaces during childhood and adolescence. She has a Master's Degree in Social Sciences and a knack for writing about complex topics in ways that connect with kids. Jessica regularly contributes to media outlets on content related to kids, parenting, friendship, and social-emotional learning.