TENNERTON — When you Google “bullying” on the Internet, dozens of stories about tormented children — many of whom are believed to have died by suicide as a direct result of that bullying — pop up.
That’s why when French Creek native Matt Tolliver, a school counselor at Skyview Elementary School in Morgantown, looked out at his audience Thursday evening, he was surprised more people hadn’t shown up to his talk at the Upshur County Public Library entitled “What is Bullying (And how to Deal with it).
Tolliver — a licensed professional counselor, nationally certified counselor and former West Virginia School Counselor of the Year — recently published his first book, “Not Everything is Bullying: A Practical Guide for Understanding Bullying and Conflicts.” Its purpose is to help educators, counselors and parents differentiate between true bullying and conflict in an effort to help them more effectively respond to situations that arise among youth in and out of school.
On Thursday, he appeared at the library at 6 p.m. to brief those interested on some of the key points he makes in his new book.
“If you look at the room tonight, everybody wants to complain about bullying and say it’s a problem and that we need to deal with this and it needs to stop, but look, there’s not a lot of people here ready to help do that,” Tolliver said. “And that’s a big problem.”
One of the main misconceptions Tolliver said he wanted to clear up is the idea that bullying almost always leads children to die by suicide.
“My big thing is, I think we’ve gotten to where we think bullying automatically equals suicide, and parents get especially concerned when their kid says they’re being bullied and sort of jumps to that first thing,” Tolliver said. “But for me, I think the truth is, can bullying lead to mental health issues? Absolutely — especially ones like anxiety and depression. But it’s very rarely the sole reason for a child to take their own life.”
Larger risk factors include child maltreatment by parents or guardians and a sheer lack of access to mental health treatment and resources, particularly in the Mountain State, Tolliver said.
“I know I personally experience this lack of access when I try to get kids in to see mental health counselors,” Tolliver said. “There’s just not enough access to mental health services.”
Tolliver reviewed several key concepts he uses when addressing alleged bullying situations in his own work. It’s important to recognize that instigators are not always bullies, but bullies are always instigators, or individuals who initially cause a situation to unfold, Tolliver said. In what he calls “true bullying” situations, a person is repeatedly and intentionally targeted.
“Bullying situations have clear instigators and clear targets,” Tolliver explained. “There is also usually a power difference, such as size or popularity in true bullying. In instances of rudeness or miscommunication that results in conflicts, the instigator is going after somebody, but conflicts are usually isolated and typically unrelated.”
Some of the reasons children engage in bullying are to embarrass the target, get attention from other friends or peers and avoid their own pain, Tolliver added.
Tolliver also stressed the difference between defending oneself and fighting, the latter of which often results in the situation escalating.
“I have this sign in my office, and I always tell kids, ‘the only person you can control is you’ and ‘the only person who can control you is you,’” he said.
Tolliver brought his puppet friend, Emily, along to Thursday’s presentation. Emily helped him examine several real-life examples of alleged bullying and decide whether the behavior in question was true bullying or mere conflict.
To learn more about what is — and isn’t — bullying, check out Tolliver’s “Not Everything is Bullying” book, which is available for purchase on www.lulu.com.