Bullying has recently become a hot topic in parenting and our society. It’s something we hope to never have to address, but that doesn’t mean we need to close ourselves off to it altogether. The reality is that bullying is one of the biggest childhood issues impacting youth in this country – and as we see now in politics and pop culture, it’s doesn’t always stop with kids.
As parents, we worry and stress over whether or not our kids are happy, but as they get older, we realize so much of their lives are out of our control. When they start school, we can’t choose their classmates or peers, we can’t piece together their social environments the way we did when they were babies, we can’t prevent every bit of hurt or pain (though we most certainly always try).
In general, bullying in schools has become a national epidemic. According to the National Education Association, at least 160,000 kids stay home from school each day because they’re afraid of being bullied. And, a study in the Journal of School Health found that at least 19 percent of kids in elementary school (starting at age 5) in the U.S. are victims of bullies.
When things get out of hand and intervention is necessary, we do have to know what to do and what to look for to keep our kids safe. To get the facts on bullying and what we can do as parents, we reached out to experts in the field.
What is bullying?
Bullying is commonly seen as any act that willfully causes harm to another person. This can include:
- Verbal harassment – teasing, threatening, and name-calling
- Physical assault – hitting, kicking, biting, and destruction of property
- Social exclusion – intentionally rejecting a child from a larger group
Bullying is most often seen beginning in the tween years, but the latest research shows that it’s trickling down to even the youngest kids. Bullying can greatly impact young children, causing them to have poor school performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression. Bullying has become such a major issue in childhood health and wellness that the American Academy of Pediatrics even issued an official policy statement and recommendations regarding the subject.
What can parents look for?
Some young children come right out and tell the parent they are being bullied or someone is bothering them in school, notes Dr. Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Harborside Wellbeing, a private practice in North Carolina. “If they do not come to you, and many don’t, there are signs that indicate things are not right at school or elsewhere.”
Young children typically will show their parents that things aren’t right in their behavior, says Prior, usually in their sleeping and eating patterns. “They could be more irritable or agitated, and they will demonstrate a rollercoaster of emotions,” explains Prior. One moment things will seem okay and the next they will become angry or scream in response to the smallest irritant.
Their appetite may change, too. Some kids eat less when bullied, while others overeat, Prior mentions. “Finally,” she says, “it is normal for the stress of bullying to appear while a child is sleeping, as well. Your child may wake with nightmares more frequently.”
Christy Doering, MSSW, LCSW, licensed therapist at Sage Counseling in Dallas tell us that many kids are terribly ashamed of being bullied, so they may try to hide it or pretend things are fine.
“If you are not getting much information when you ask open-ended questions about school,” she says, “probe a little further.” Who did they sit with at lunch? What happened at recess? Is there anyone who annoys them or someone they really enjoy? “With young children especially, asking questions at bedtime can elicit lots of conversation because they love talking to push bedtime,” Doering explains.
Bullying can, of course, have physical symptoms, as well. A child could complain of bellyaches or headaches before being dropped off at a playdate, daycare, or preschool, Ruby Velasco, M.S., MFT, Mental Health Specialist Child360, a nonprofit working towards educational justice in Los Angeles County, California. “He or she could also have unexplained boo-boos,” says Velasco. Of course, little kids get bumps and bruises when they play, she says, but if your child seems to have more than a normal amount or “forgets” the details of getting hurt, it might warrant a closer look.
Also, look for your child to be uninterested in social events, school days, or playdates that she or he has typically been enthusiastic about. Wanting to stay home is a common way to avoid a bad situation.
How can parents respond if their child says they’re being bullied?
“First,” Prior starts, “be thankful that your child has come to you to tell you what is going on with them.”
- Take a breath – “Take a moment to listen before responding,” Prior emphasizes, “It is incredibly important to take note of your own response as you listen to your child because your child will likely mimic your response.” If you respond with anger, angst, anxiety, then your child will respond with anger, angst, and anxiety.
- Listen – Listen to your child and respond by telling them that you believe them and that you will work together to find a solution. It is important that, as the parent, you communicate to your child that they are not in this alone and that you will partner with them to end the bullying.
- Know you are a safe place – It’s important for your child to know that they can find a safe place in you. “I encourage parents to let their child know they do not deserve what’s happening and that you can develop a plan, together, about how to respond to the situation,” Velasco tells us. Be prepared to listen without judgment, and provide a safe and supportive place where your child can work out his or her feelings.
- Ask direct questions – “Then, ask direct questions, such as how long the behavior has been happening, who has been involved, and what steps have been taken,” Velasco says. You are encouraging your child to talk by listening to them first and engaging with them second. Thank them for coming to you and let them know they are not alone and you are there to help.
- Ask what your child wants to do – Next, you need to ask them what they want to do about it. “Let them learn to problem solve,” Doering says, “because this empowers them.” Help them work through possible solutions, and offer assistance as necessary when it comes to talking to teachers or other school administrators. Of course, if you fear serious damage to their emotional or physical wellbeing, you may need to talk to the school (or the police, depending on the nature of the threats or behavior) immediately.
Children may not be ready to open up right away, and that’s okay, Velasco continues. They could be sifting through insecurity and may feel frightened, angry, or even sad.
“As a listening parent, it’s important to learn as much as possible about the situation, before you shed light on their circumstances,” Velasco says. You are teaching them to tolerate emotion, which is an important life skill, Doering notes. This proves to be very difficult for many parents to handle, but it’s important.
What are the best next steps to take if you believe your child is being bullied?
Communicate to your child that it is important to not keep the bullying a secret. “Talk to your child about the importance of informing the teacher or an adult in the community so all adults (parent, teacher, school administrators) can keep all children safe and free from bullying,” encourages Prior. Your child may want to confront the bully on their own or they may want you to take an active role in stopping the behavior. “Either way, it is important that a plan is in place to help your child if the bully continues their hurtful behavior,” Prior adds.
It is also important that all communications with the teacher/school/additional parents are done in a kind and compassionate manner. Though your emotions are likely high from talking to your child, this is not the time to send an angry email to anyone.
“I don’t recommend talking with the other child’s parents typically, as this can exacerbate things,” Doering adds. Start with the teacher in the classroom and just ask for information and then relay what your concerns are. Be calm. “If that doesn’t make a difference, you can escalate it to the school counselor and beyond, but know what you want to see happen and if they don’t offer up solutions, you may need to,” Doering says.
Most schools have policies, and all children deserve to feel safe. “Let your child know that – you could even come up with a motto like that to assure them, ‘all children deserve to feel safe,'” says Velasco. “Amidst this process,” she continues, “I also encourage parents to affirm their child on the bravery of sharing what is happening in their world.” Telling is not tattling, and many times, it’s okay to tell. Let them know that it is safe to share their feelings with you and that you are in this process with them and will do everything you can to help.