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article imageOp-Ed: Punishing by itself doesn't help stop bullying, says expert Special

By Ernest Dempsey     Aug 5, 2013 in Health
Prescott - "Being beaten down repeatedly – in the physical and cyber worlds – is not a rite of passage. It is a recipe for ruination of a young life," says recovery expert Holli Kenley.
Bullying is a life-threatening issue which has reached alarming statistics in the United States, says recovery expert Holli Kenley, author of Cyber Bullying No More, who actively blogs and speaks on this serious issue. Later this month, Holli and her team have organized an anti-bullying event called ‘In Harm’s Way – Dangers Facing Our Children Today’ to take place in Arizona. Here is my brief Q&A session with Holli about the issue of bullying in America.
Ernest: Holli, thank you for taking time for this chat. I’d first like to hear your thoughts on how serious this problem is in America as we speak.
Holli: Thank you, Ernest. Bullying is an extremely serious problem in America. Recent estimates state that approximately 160,000 students stay home each day from school as the result of chronic bullying. That is about 3,000,000 per month. Because there is a high correlation between ‘traditional bullying’ and ‘cyber bullying’, I would also like to share that recent studies suggest that one in three students will be cyber bullied in his/her school lifetime.
Both traditional bullying and cyber bullying occur at all age levels; however, we do know as students age and become more technologically proficient, and if their aggressive behaviors go unchecked, the acts of bullying and cyber bullying become more prevalent and injurious.
In the United States, our special needs populations as well as our GLTB communities are more highly targeted. Worldwide, cyber bullying is a problem in most, if not all, developed countries.
Ernest: From what you have written and spoken about bullying earlier, it is clear that bullying is a life-threatening issue.
Holli: Tragically, both traditional bullying and cyber bullying are life-threatening issues. In fact, in recent years, we have added a new word to the English language – bullicide. Bullicide is defined as an individual who takes his/her own life as the result of aggressive, intentional, harmful behaviors perpetrated by one or more bullies or cyber bullies - repeatedly and over time – against a victim who is unable to protect him or herself. Victims of ongoing bullying report feeling hopeless, isolated, and extremely fearful. In addition, victims of both types of chronic bullying suffer with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post- traumatic stress disorder. And because in many cases, the bullying behaviors are ignored or minimized by adults and/or the victims are fearful of retaliation and thus do not report the bullying, individuals are often victimized for long periods of time. Tragically, as their sense of desperation intensifies, many young people take their own lives to stop the horrific pain they are experiencing.
Ernest: Are bullied children at risk for abusing substances?
Holli: Children who are chronically bullied or cyber bullied are at risk for engaging in unhealthy self-soothing behaviors. In order to lessen their pain (depression, anxiety) and to ease their sense of isolation and fear, victims will often begin using drugs and/or alcohol. In some cases, victims resort to other at risk behaviors such as self-cutting behaviors to cope with their intense feelings of worthlessness. Often, victims will exhibit ‘acting out’ behaviors – such as anger (even rage), destruction of property, irritability, or agitation – not only as a result of their victimization but as a symptom of their on-going or increased usage of drugs or alcohol. Ironically and again tragically, victims are more like to carry a weapon than bullies.
Ernest: How important it is for kids to report bullying, whether it happened online or physically, before it causes permanent damage?
Holli: I cannot stress enough how important it is for kids to report bullying – whether traditional or cyber! Kids don’t report for three reasons. First, they don’t believe that they will be believed (or they believe the bullying will be minimized). Secondly, if they are believed, kids don’t think anyone can or will do anything to make it stop. And thirdly, kids fear that if they report the bullying, it will get worse. Whether it is traditional or cyber bullying, adults must do three things:
1. Provide support: Victims need to know that they are believed! Listen to them. Hear their story and find out what is going on and how long it has been occurring. Let them know that they are not alone – you are in this with them and you are going to help!
2. Provide safety: Put a safety plan in place and a safety net around these children! Whether it is traditional or cyber bullying, there may be reason to contact law enforcement or other authorities (assess this case by case). Tell your children exactly what they are to do, where they are to go, and whom they are to contact in case the bullying happens again. With cyber bullying, implement the ‘stop, save, share’ policy. Stop – do not respond to the bullying; Save – save the information; Share – share it with a trusted adult or official. Let your children know that you will protect them and keep them safe from harm.
3. Provide a social response: Because many victims feel worthless and powerless, consider counseling or group work where they can learn assertiveness skills and communication. They need to feel good again – to feel empowered in healthy ways! Get them involved in a sport that builds their confidence and self-esteem such as karate, and look for opportunities in clubs, sports, or faith-based groups where they can connect with kids who will support them.
Parents and guardians, keep fighting for your kids. If you give up, they will too.
Ernest: Bullying also happens in families, like among siblings or cousins. Can that kind of bullying be also life-threatening?
Holli: This is important, bullying is bullying – wherever it happens. And bullying is abuse. As a Marriage & Family Therapist, many of the bullying behaviors that I have witnessed or heard about – both traditional and cyber – would be reportable by law if it were an adult perpetrating them onto a minor. And yet, because it is a minor or minors victimizing other minors, we hear comments such as: “Bullying is over-blown – it’s a rite of passage – we all experienced it! Kids need to grow up and toughen up”. This could not be further from the truth.
Whether it is in a family, or a school, or in a community, if a young person is repeatedly denigrated, humiliated, or violated in any way – this is abuse and this child is at risk. In my years of practice working with abuse and trauma victims, I see the same kinds of life-threatening symptoms (physical, psychological, and emotional) from victims of bullying and cyber bullying as I did from former clients. Being beaten down repeatedly – in the physical and cyber worlds – is not a rite of passage. It is a recipe for ruination of a young life.
Ernest: Please tell us a little about this coming event in Yavapai County, AZ
Holli: Not too long after I moved into the community in which I am now living, there were two suicides at one of our local high schools. It is believed that one was related to bullying. So often, when tragedies like this happen, emotions swell; blame is cast in many directions; sadness sets in and eventually subsides. And then, people move on. Nothing changes. Because of my interest in the issue of bullying and cyber bullying, I wanted to do something to make a positive, indelible impact on our community regarding the issue of bullying.
After a year of planning, five other community members and I organized a two-day valley-wide Anti-Bullying Outreach Event entitled – In Harms’ Way: Dangers Facing Our Kids Today. We are honored to have Kirk Smalley – founder of Stand For The Silent – speaking to students in four of our schools, and presenting at an Open Community Forum for parents, educators, and all community members. In addition, we will be screening the movie Bully (in which Kirk’s family is profiled) through the Prescott Film Festival, and Mr. Smalley will address the audience as well.
The main reason we invited Kirk Smalley (who lost his 11-year-old son to bullicide) is because not only do his words appeal to the hearts and emotions of his listening audience, but his work motivates all community members to take a stand against bullying. And, his organization Stand For The Silent provides the resources to do so. No one person is to blame for the tragic epidemic of bullying and cyber bullying that is sweeping across our country (and many others as well) and no one person can fix it. But as Mr. Smalley insists, “Together, we can make a difference.”
Ernest: Do you believe mainstream media and the showbiz industry have done enough to draw attention to the problem of bullying?
Holli: Lee Hirsch, director of Bully, has done an extraordinary job documenting the severity and prevalence of bullying. His film has definitely increased awareness and stimulated an awakening as to what we all can do to end bullying! In addition to the movie, Lee and organizers of The Bully Project have worked with leaders in education to create resources, curriculum, and professional development tools to provide an educational framework to accompany the film. Individuals can visit to download free tools and resources!
Another independent film, Bullied To Silence, has received critical acclaim and is making a positive impact on many audiences. TV news commentator and celebrity Anderson Cooper has been a tireless outspoken advocate against bullying. Cooper has supported the The Bully Project and its movement.
Of course, the media usually reports on the horrific tragedies of bullying more than the positive work that is being done. All the more reason to let our voices be heard!
Ernest: As a recovery expert, do you feel victims of bullying need some kind of special therapy or counseling?
Holli: Yes, and because I addressed this in question 4, I would like to talk about the bullies. They too need attention. If we are ever going to turn the tide on this toxic social normative behavior, we must address the bully. There are three steps to take with a child who is bullying:
1. Implement a behavior contract: Whether the bullying is traditional or cyber in nature, the goal is to change the behavior. Clearly identify the unhealthy behaviors and implement rules, expectations, and guidelines for changing the behaviors. Adults must be consistent in implementing these changes and they must model the behaviors themselves. If the bullying includes cyber bullying, a Family Online Safety Contract should be implemented immediately. (Visit to download an agreement.)
2. Implement consequences: Punishment does not work by itself and sometimes intensifies the behavior. With cyber bullying, simply taking the technology away does not change the behavior either. Implement reasonable consequences that correlate with the offenses. Making amends to the victim/s (restorative justice) has proven to be highly successful in changing bullying behaviors. With cyber bullying, monitor the use of technology, limit the use, and give more freedom of use once responsibility has been demonstrated.
3. Implement counseling: It is imperative that the reasons for bullying or cyber bullying are assessed and addressed. Many individuals bully for fun. Others do so because it makes them feel powerful and in control. Others get involved as an act of revenge for being bullied. Therefore, the type of counseling can take many forms. What is important here is that we must change the heart of the bully. All of research consistently reports that effective counseling, or programs, or groups that address bullying behaviors contain an empathy component in them. It is clear that we cannot deliberately harm another human being and feel compassion for them simultaneously. Empathy is the antidote to bullying.
We live in a time where bullying abounds. This is paramount - adults must all model an empathic spirit if we expect our young people to do the same.
Ernest: And to conclude, what are some of your upcoming projects related to child recovery issues?
Holli: Our Anti-Bullying Outreach Event is coming up in just a few weeks. So, I am pretty busy with that! However, I am a frequent guest on radio or podcasts speaking on bullying. I maintain a blog cyber bullying no more! where I continue to address this issue. And of course, I will continue to support Stand For The Silent, The Bully Project, and do whatever I can in my community to keep our anti-bullying movement alive!
Ernest: Thank you so much Holli for talking to us about this important topic.
Holli: Thank you, Ernest. It is always a pleasure.
To learn more about Holli Kenley and her work, visit her online at
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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