On Covert Bullying


On Covert Bullying

by Anna Krieger, MSW

Hi Parent,

Sometimes you might not always get the inside scoop on your child’s life, so I want to share some information about what your kid might be experiencing while at school.

As a society, we talk about bullying all the time. Schools have become better at cracking down on “overt bullying,” the kind of bullying that occurs in the open. If a student says a gay slur or makes a joke in front of a teacher, that student will likely get reprimanded immediately in many schools. However, what we often don’t discuss or think about is the idea of “covert bullying”—  bullying behind closed doors, bathroom stalls, text messages —all the spaces that are hidden from the adults.

So, after you say goodbye to your children each morning, it’s possible that they may observe or experience bullying firsthand. And their teachers may have no idea. You may be thinking to yourself, “But my child’s school is different. We have a GSA. We have a strong disciplinary program, etc.”  Even schools with these structures in place experience bullying. That’s the challenge. It’s this kind of bullying that escapes accountability.

A couple of years ago, I interned at a low-income school in West Philadelphia, providing counseling services for the students. As a bonus project, I facilitated the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA). This group of loud, proud, boisterous teens seemed well-adjusted and open with their sexuality and gender expression, which led me to think that there was no issue with bullying in this school. One day, however, we discussed how to get more members for our group. The group members spoke candidly about the immense bullying they faced as a result of attending the group. They all nodded in agreement as each person shared about times they had faced verbal harassment from fellow students. They conjectured that that was why there were no closeted teens in the group, and why membership had dwindled. Even in this school, where students dressed in drag and were celebrated by their teachers for being true to themselves, bullying was rampant, and an expectation for anyone attending this group.

For you, dear parent, this is a snapshot into the kind of world your child might be walking into each day. So, this is an awesome opportunity for you. This is not about forcing your child to tell you all about the bullying at school, but it’s about creating a safe, accepting space at home so that they can share openly with you about how they might be feeling when the time comes. How do you do this, you may ask? Perhaps you are just beginning to understand how to accept this journey yourself, and you’re not sure how to proceed. That’s okay! The cool thing is that your kid will guide you. Maybe your son doesn’t want to talk about wanting to date his friend just yet, but maybe he really wants to wear a pink bow tie and listen to Prince music. By giving him the space to do these things, you show your son that you respect and love him for who he is. You also give him the message that you are present and listening, and ready for whenever he needs to talk about bigger topics in the future. I see this is as a huge way to create a safe space at home, which will be important for several reasons:

1. You are setting important stepping stones in place, so that whenever your child is ready to discuss his life, he can come to you!

2. Regardless of what’s going on at school, and regardless of how much your child acknowledges openly, this space can serve as an important refuge. Maybe your daughter doesn’t feel ready to talk about the girls who texted her mean things in class, but she can breathe more easily for the hours before she has to face her classmates again in the morning

3. You are setting the stage to allow your child to properly combat covert bullying. Your providing this kind of space will give them more armor than you will ever imagine. You will allow them to see themselves as valued, confident people. This will give them the space to be totally themselves, be in the GSA if they want to, and ideally, speak out against any covert bullying—whether on their behalf or someone else’s.

Please remember that these are just small steps that are part of a much bigger journey. So please be forgiving. You don’t need to have it all figured out right now. It’s okay if your child doesn’t want to tell you everything. Every kid has their own journey. And you have your own journey, too. Maybe you aren’t ready to let your son wear his pink bowtie, and maybe some of that comes from wanting to protect him. And that’s okay. But merely by learning to maybe think about one day letting him wear the pink bowtie, and giving him the space to talk about wanting to wear it, you show him that you are trying to accept where he is. And just remember that even if your child acts angry and rebellious and doesn't want to talk to you, creating a strong, safe, loving home with acceptance is huge.

When I'm sitting there with a group of students who are opening up to me about their lives, the kids with the most heartbreaking stories revolve around parents who aren't in their lives—whether because they're no longer alive, they're in prison, or maybe because they have a lot of other things going on. So just remember that you matter. Your words matter. Even when you think that your child isn’t listening, they are. And your words could be what protects them, allowing them to walk through school with a shield of pride, confidence, and love, bypassing whatever bullying or ridicule may be happening around them.



Anna Krieger, MSW has been committed to social issues since her time as a student at Haverford College, where, as an out student, she led several student groups focused around providing support for the LGBTQ community. Post-graduation, Anna worked in several low-performing middle and high schools in Philadelphia as an Americorps member, and later as a social worker, after graduating from University of Pennsylvania with her MSW. Anna moved to New York last year, where she has focused her career on recruitment, most recently for a non-profit that provides programming for high-need middle schools around the country. In her spare time, Anna likes to sit in the park, eat soft serve ice cream with sprinkles, and attempts to remember to update her blog: www.nougatsofinspiration.blogspot.com.