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How to Know if Your Child is Being Bullied—and What to Do About It

Plus, tips to empower them to stand up for themselves and others.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Mark Welles, MD, is a pediatrician in the Division of General Pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center, co-chair of the Bullying Prevention Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.

When we were young, bullying was considered by many to be a rite of passage, but that attitude turned a blind-eye on the seriousness of this issue. Today, bullying is more prevalent than ever—and it has evolved. With the rise of social media, bullying spreads faster and more aggressively, making it harder to recognize when these harmful behaviors are even taking place.

The facts are staggering: More than one in four U.S. students in grades 6 to 12 say they have been bullied, and almost three in four young people say they have seen bullying in their schools. This pervasive issue can cause its victims severe psychological issues well into adulthood, leading to suicide and even violence against others—approximately 75 percent of school shooters were bully victims. It’s time to stop bullying in its tracks before it’s too late.

Here’s what you can do to make sure your child doesn’t fall victim to bullying.

What is bullying?

I define bullying as the aggressive and unwanted behavior by a person or group geared toward another person or group who is perceived to be less powerful. The most important part of the equation is that it is unrelenting and occurs on a regular basis. (An occasional negative remark or action, while unwelcome, is classified as teasing, rather than bullying.)

Are there warning signs?

There may be warning signs that your child is being bullied. Recognizing these red flags is key in identifying a problem and helping your child through the situation. Every circumstance is unique, but clues your child is being bullied might include:

  •        Unexplainable injuries and/or damaged belongings
  •        Sudden avoidance of social situations or loss of friends
  •        Altered eating habits, such as refusing to eat or binge eating
  •        Nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  •        Declining grades or not wanting to do school work or go to school (even faking illness to avoid going)
  •        Self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm or talk about suicide

Ask questions and monitor social media

A lot of warning signs can be tough for parents to detect, so it’s crucial to keep an open dialogue with your child. I understand how challenging it can be to find time to sit down and talk during a jam-packed day, and it’s rarely easy to get and hold the attention of a teen or preteen who has better things to do than sit around and talk to mom and dad, but I can’t stress enough how important this is. You should get in the habit of regularly asking your child things like how their day was, what happened at school, if they saw somebody being bullied, if they helped that child, and how their friends are doing. This will open conversations and connections. Studies show that having a concerned, open, loving relationship at home provides increased resilience for children who are experiencing bullying. (Kids who feel supported are also more confident and less likely to be bullied in the first place.)

Additionally, I strongly recommend that you educate your children about acceptable online behavior; in addition, you should have the passwords for their computers, phones and any active social media platforms and regularly monitor their activity. This is especially necessary for elementary and middle school aged-children, but I believe it should be applied to high school students as well, since this is when cyberbullying peaks.

“Today, bullying is more prevalent than ever—and it has evolved. With the rise of social media, bullying spreads faster and more aggressively, making it harder to recognize when these harmful behaviors are even taking place.”
Dr. Mark Welles, pediatrician

What should you do if you suspect your child is being bullied?

Only about 20 to 30 percent of students who are bullied notify an adult about the situation. If your child has been presenting warning signs (see above) and you suspect that something just doesn’t feel right, talk to your child about your observations and concerns. Provide a safe space for your child to talk by using active listening skills. For example, saying, “I noticed you haven’t been making plans with your friends anymore, are you still hanging out with them?” gives your child an opportunity to express themselves without feeling interrogated. As intense as the situation feels, it’s essential to avoid assumptions and to listen to your child without judgment.

Do not hesitate to ask for help. Thinking this will blow over can lead to dangerous consequences. If you suspect your child is being bullied, contact your child’s teacher, principal, school counselor or community officials to further investigate the issue. Your child may also benefit from speaking to a local counselor or therapist outside of school. If your child communicates suicidal thoughts, it is essential to get your child evaluated by a licensed mental health practitioner immediately.

How can I help my child if they are the victim of bullying?

What could be worse than finding out that someone is being cruel to your child? Your inclination might be to confront the bully or their parents, but the first step should always be information-gathering. Talk to your child and find out what exactly has been going on. Ask when and where the bullying occurs, who’s doing it, and what the bully is saying or doing. Once you know the details, you can decide on the best course of action. A smart approach is to alert the adults in charge of where the bullying is occurring, such as the school staff or the coach of a team. Thanks to a recent law, every school in New York state is required to have a dedicated educator and program to deal with bullying.

Realize that your child might beg you to not intervene, but you need to do what it takes to keep them safe. Considering the jarring statistics—like the fact that the suicide rate for 11-to-14-year-old girls has tripled in the last five years—you can’t afford to not act out of fear of violating your child’s trust.

Empower your child to stand up to the bully

It may also help to teach your child how to deal directly with a bully. Here are the main types of bullying and some tips to help them defuse each one.

Verbal bullying

  • Characteristics: Threatening, taunting, teasing, hate speech
  • How to defuse it: Understand that a bully’s main goal is to get a reaction out of you in order to feel powerful. Have your child look the bully in the eye and say clearly and calmly, “I don’t like what you’re saying to me. Do not say that anymore.” Then walk away. Or catch the bully off-guard by making a joke and laughing off the negative comment. If your child doesn’t get upset or angry, the bully won’t get the reaction they want and most likely will eventually stop. You can practice role playing different scenarios with your child, so they will feel confident and prepared.

Cyberbullying

  • Characteristics: Harassing or embarrassing someone on social media, the internet, a cell phone or other electronic platform
  • How to defuse it: Tell your child not to respond to online bullying. Block the sender and change the settings to be connected to only friends. Note that by law, any child caught cyberbullying, even if it was off-campus, can be disciplined by their school.

Emotional/psychological bullying

  • Characteristics: Excluding someone or spreading rumors about them (sometimes happens with people you consider a friend)
  • How to defuse it: Teach your child that a friend is someone who has your back all the time. If someone is being mean, they’re not your friend and you should cut them loose. Encourage your kids to surround themselves with positive people.

Physical bullying

  • Characteristics: Punching, hitting, shoving, kicking or other aggressive behavior
  • How to defuse it: Have your child walk or run away and tell an adult immediately. If your son or daughter is being threatened and is in danger, gather as much as evidence as you can (e.g., photograph damages/injuries, save messages) and alert a school official and/or law enforcement.

Get professional help

Dealing with bullying can cause children to feel anxious, stressed, and depressed, and sometimes it helps to enlist the help of your pediatrician. It’s important to pay attention to how your child is doing over time. If they are still struggling, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with their doctor. We pediatricians are often overlooked as a resource, but our job includes caring for children’s emotional well-being—not just their physical health. We are trained to ask children about bullying, and we can help you and your family navigate the problems you’re having. And we can refer you to a mental health professional or therapist for added support.

Teach your child to be an upstander

We need to teach our children to be kind and that it’s not cool to make fun of people. Encourage them to stand up for others who are being bullied by telling the bully to stop or by reporting it to an adult (which can be done anonymously). Let your child know that this is not tattling—it’s an act of courage that should be commended.

There is strength in numbers. When children start looking out for other children, they can recognize bullying and help each other. By turning our kids from bystanders into “upstanders,” we can change the culture that allows bullying to flourish.

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Published September 18th, 2018

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