Valley experts say parents, communities need to do more to combat violence, bullying

Apr 5, 2024, 4:35 AM

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a four-part special KTAR News series called “Youth on Edge,” which will examine mental health and behavioral issues among our teens and young adults. Read part one here, part two here and part three here.

PHOENIX — Valley experts on bullying and youth violence say parents must engage with their children about what’s going on in their lives, especially with several recent incidents that have rocked the metro area.

Donna Bartos with Valley nonprofit BLOOM365, which works to prevent violence before it starts for young people aged 11-24, says it’s an act she believes the entire community needs to get on board with.

“If we just did this work in unison and took the time and had the patience to get there, we would see big changes in the next decade,” Bartos said.

But what does that look like and how do parents engage with their children on topics like bullying and violence?

How is bullying and violence defined?

There is a difference between violence and bullying, even if they can sometimes look the same.

Violence includes acts like domestic or intimate partner violence and sexual assaults.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bullying as aggressive behavior between youths, who are not related or dating, that has been repeated or will likely repeat.

Bartos says there is a similarity between them.

“It’s the intentional and repeated misuse of power and control to harm someone, intimidate someone, coerce someone, make someone uncomfortable,” Bartos said. “And someone who is typically vulnerable.”

It’s also not usually random when instances of bullying or violence occur.

There are a variety of risk factors identified by BLOOM365 that make it more likely for someone to be involved in these situations.

These risk factors include:

• Lack of parental support.
• Poor coping skills.
• Experienced childhood trauma.
• Exposure to past bullying or domestic/sexual violence.
• Use of alcohol or drugs.
• Associations with violent peers.
• Low self-esteem.
• Access to a firearm.
• Lack of empathy for others.

Risk factors, issues start at home

If teens do open about experiencing these risk factors, it’s key to listen.

“As parents we love to give advice, right? When I was your age, this is what happened, this is what you need to do,” Bartos said. “It’s a different time.”

She specifically urges parents to never asked, “What happened?” when their children or teens do open up about bullying or violence.

That’s something Brad Snyder agrees with.

Snyder is the executive director of the Dion Initiative for Child Well-being and Bullying Prevention at Arizona State University and a consultant to the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Must Stop Bullying campaign.

“So, the victim always knows why it’s happening to them and what’s being said,” Snyder said. “If you’re a trusted adult in the life of a kid, the last thing that kid wants is for you to seem them the way the bully sees them.”

Instead, for adults in the lives of kids experiencing bullying, he recommends an approach like this:

“You’ve done nothing to deserve the bullying and we’re going to work together to make it stop.”

Bartos adds that if you are the parent of a bully, you also have a responsibility to check in on them and help prevent what could spiral into more intense violence.

“If we do nothing, it becomes normalized and it becomes socially accepted,” Bartos said. “And then we also escalate the risk of suicide, not only for the person who is targeted, but for the person who is using these behaviors.”

That’s because for both the one doing the bullying and the victim, chances are they are experiencing one of those risk factors mentioned above.

Combating bullying, violence isn’t an easy task

Violent tendencies or participation in bullying are not always a problem that comes from the home.

Sometimes, a culture of violence and bullying can be supported by an entire community – and the adults and children who see these things happen without saying anything.

Snyder believes that’s what led to the violence seen in the East Valley and the killing of 16-year-old Preston Lord.

“[Those people are] what we call bystanders,” Snyder said. “All those people who are watching, taking pictures, laughing, applauding and sharing.”

Both Bartos and Snyder say because of the scope in which violence can be supported in communities, solutions need to be multifaceted and address the problem on a large scale.

Another factor that affects teens both at home and among their peers is this year’s turbulent political season.

Bartos explains that teens model their parent’s actions, and the same can apply to community leaders and politicians.

“These behaviors have unfortunately and upsettingly become normalized. They’ve been socially accepted in many spaces, whether you’re looking at the societal level and government with how some politicians show up, or you look at the community level.”

What solutions are there for bullying, violence?

Bartos describes a three-pronged approach when it comes to a potential solution, which she says is based on data from the CDC:

1. Address the problem at the individual level by making sure teens have key coping and communication skills.
2. Help teens build positive peer relationships with one another and ensure youth have at least one trusted adult in their lives.
3. Bring larger communities of schools and neighborhoods together to create a culture that does not support violence or bullying.

She emphasizes that there will be no “magic bullet” to curb youth violence or bullying, but whatever works will be made up of a variety of solutions.

Meanwhile Snyder believes Arizona lawmakers can expand on already existing laws to increase protections for youth who may be involved in violence or bullying.

He’s referring to ARS 15-153 and ARS 15-341.

These state laws describe procedures for notifying parents of suspected bullying and other policies for schools and districts.

His proposal is to modify the law so the parents of witnesses or bystanders of bullying or violence at schools are also notified.

Snyder says, “I think the parents of bystanders can sit down with their children and ask them some very simple questions about whether they know what to do when they witness these activities.”

Snyder and Bartos also both agree the problem won’t be solved by only focusing on the teens who are “bullied” or “bullies,” but the majority of students who are on the fringes of the youth assaults and bullying incidents that have taken place.

Chances are if you’re a parent, that’s your child.

“It’s something we can prevent … so that is what I think we’re doing now,” Snyder said. “We don’t think of it as just a part of growing up.”

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Valley experts say parents, communities need to do more to combat violence, bullying