Bullying is a serious problem in our nation. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, approximately one out of every four students (22%) is bullied each school year. What’s more is that 54% of kids who are bullied don’t report it. Bullying can take on many forms- verbal (name calling), physical (aggressive acts), and social-emotional (rumors, social exclusion). Bullying can occur in real life or it can be virtual in the form of cyberbullying.
Parents have a natural protective instinct and want to do everything they can to prevent bullying… but if 54% of kids don’t admit to being bullied, how are you to know if your child is at risk? As it turns out, there is no single factor putting your child at risk for bullying. However, according to the National Bullying Prevention Center, school age children reported they were most often bullied due to looks, body shape, and race. Children with disabilities and those who identify as LBGT are also at increased risk for bullying. Being bullied can have serious effects on a child’s physical and mental health, but parents can take an active role in bullying prevention. Be on the lookout for warning signs such as:
Changes in mood: Appearing more irritable, sad, anxious, distracted, or withdrawn
Changes in behavior: Changes in eating habits (such as eating significantly more or less before or after school), sleeping difficulties or nightmares, avoidance of social activities or sports, school avoidance, or an unexplainable decline in academic functioning
Somatic complaints: Frequent complaints of stomach pains, headaches, feeling sick, or feigning illness
Lost or broken belongings: Unexplainable damage or loss of items such as backpacks, school supplies, toys, or clothing
Unexplainable injuries: bruises, skinned knees or elbows, cuts or even burns
Unsafe thoughts or behaviors: Recent run away attempts, purposeful self-injury, comments about not wanting to live or feeling worthless
Kids may not share they are being bullied due to embarrassment, humiliation, or fear of further social rejection. They may assume they’ll get into trouble or that parents and teachers won’t understand their experience. If you suspect your child is being bullied, try to have an unassuming, private conversation with him or her. Often times talking while engaged in some sort of activity (a walk, swinging, a game of ball toss) is helpful in getting kids to open up, as long as other people aren’t around to listen in. Use open-ended questions and statements such as “I’ve noticed you haven’t been wanting to go to soccer practice lately. What’s been happening at practice that makes it not as fun as it used to be?” Rather than asking closed ended questions such as “Is there anything going on at soccer that I should know about?” Make sure to communicate to your child that you are concerned and worried about him or her. Modeling your own experience with bullies can also help children open up. For example, stating something like “You know, when I was in middle school, I remember feeling sad and really left out. The girls I was friends with turned on me and started making fun of me. It felt awful. I wonder if something like that is going on for you?”
If necessary, set up a meeting with your child and his or her teacher or coach to further discuss the situation and figure out next steps. Be sure to do this as soon as possible if your child is feeling unsafe about going to school or if any physical bullying is occurring. If safety is not an issue, make sure your kiddo is on board with parent intervention at school- he or she may feel adult involvement will make the situation worse. If this is the case, trying some of the strategies discussed below may be your first line of defense.
Brainstorm strategies with your kiddo to help him or her cope appropriately and feel more in control of the bullying situation. I really like strategies from the book Easing the Teasing, by Judy Freedman for verbal bullying and social-emotional bullying. Some of my favorite strategies for kids include:
Take a deep breath and a moment to react. Ask yourself:
“What can I do or say?”
“Is the tease true?”
“Does it really matter what the teaser thinks?”
Think about your positive traits (“So what I’m not the best at jump rope…. I am really good at basketball, reading, and making people laugh”).
Tell yourself you can handle the teasing in the moment. Even though you feel angry or sad, you don’t have to show it and let the teaser know.
Don’t look at the teaser or answer the teaser- pretend you didn’t hear the teaser’s comment.
Walk away and start doing something else- try to join in an activity with other kids.
Tell the teaser how you feel in a neutral tone: “I feel upset when you make fun of my weight. I would like you to please stop.”
Turn the Tease Into a Compliment
“Thanks for noticing my braces. They’re making my teeth really straight.” Or simply stating, “Thanks, I take that as a compliment” in response to any tease.
Agree with the Teaser
“You’re right, I do go to speech therapy” or “Yep. I do have four eyes.”
“Haha! Yep, I’m a shorty. I come from munchkin land!”
Bullying is a serious issue but it doesn’t have to cause your kiddo serious problems. You can help give your child the tools to stand up to bullies and overcome social ridicule. For questions or more information on specific bullying concerns, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Luisa. Stay tuned for next month’s follow-up post on what to do if your child is bullying others.