Bullying has become a common problem, not just among teens, but children in early grades as well. What makes bullying such a serious health problem is that when it happens neither the child knows why they’re being picked on, nor the parent knows what to do about it.
If your child is being bullied at school, you should take it seriously. Encourage your child to talk about it and let her know it’s not her fault. Build the child’s confidence and self-esteem as you teach her how to deal with the bully. And of course, don’t forget to reach out to the teachers and work with the school to defuse the situation as early as possible.
According to the CDC, one in every five students gets bullied at school. In many cases, bullying can go on unnoticed, and while the child suffers in silence, both the parents and the school are not aware of the problem. This can lead to mental health issues, self-harm, and emotional and social distress. To prevent that, you need to know what bullying is, why your child is getting bullied, and how to protect her against bullies.
When Teasing Turns into Bullying
If you happen to watch children in the playground, you might notice that they sometimes say mean things to each other. Is that bullying? No. This is playful teasing that is part of the playing experience. It’s not recurring, has no impact on the child, and children tend to brush it off and go on with their game.
In its basic definition, bullying is an aggressive behavior where the bully intentionally and repeatedly tries to inflict pain on the victim. Judging from my experience with my niece who was bullied, that pain can be deep and visceral. It leaves scars that last for years.
Bullying comes in many forms. It can be physical where hitting or punching is involved, or it can be verbal abuse with teasing and name-calling. Bullies would try to isolate the victim and use threatening gestures in what is known as emotional bullying.
But not all bullying takes place at school. With children spending more and more of their time online, bullies may turn to cyberbullying through text and emails. This form of bullying is more common and harder to detect which makes it even more damaging.
Why Some Kids Become Bullies
You might ask yourself why some kids become so mean and cruel that they feel the need to torment another child in such a way. According to researchers at Yale Medicine, bullies resort to this aggressive behavior because they think it makes them more popular, important, or in control. In other words, the bully picks on a victim to hide their own insecurities.
To find the right victim, the bully usually chooses a child who is weaker, either emotionally or physically. The victim could also be someone who acts differently or has a handicap. Although that doesn’t mean that the bully is always bigger or more physically intimidating than the victim.
For some bullies, tormenting others seems like normal behavior. These children usually grew up in an environment where the grownups often get angry and lash out either with verbal or physical abuse. Whatever the reason, bullies seem to be the victims of social or psychological problems.
Why Kids Become Targets for Bullies
If mental issues make some kids bullies, they also make other kids victims of bullying. As I watched my little niece play at home, I noticed that she was timid and withdrawn. I worried about her and told her mother who brushed it off as normal behavior for a girl her age. But years later I learned that the poor girl was being bullied at school.
As I said, bullies pick a child who looks or acts differently. Any child who sticks out, attracts the attention of the bully. If such a child already has depression or struggles with mental issues, this makes her the perfect target. The bully needs a victim who can’t defend herself.
Looking back, I can see why my niece became a victim of bullying. As a child, she was struggling with her self-esteem and confidence. Her shyness was not normal behavior, rather a sign of psychological issues which made her an easy target for the bully.
Signs Your Child is Being Bullied
But how can you tell that your child is being bullied? Victims of bullying don’t like to talk about it with grown-ups. This includes their parents, teachers, counselors, and educators. As a result, it’s your responsibility as a parent to keep a close eye on your child and be alert.
It’s true, it’s not always easy to know if your child is being tormented by a bully or not when the child won’t talk about it. But if you notice any of the following signs, chances are your child is being bullied:
- The child comes home with bruises, cuts, or scratches they can’t explain.
- Your child’s clothes or belongings are damaged, torn, or missing.
- The child has no friends to spend time with. In other words, a loner.
- Doesn’t feel like eating and their appetite is diminishing.
- School grades are getting poorer and the child has no interest in school work.
- Gets bad dreams at night and doesn’t sleep well.
- Becomes reluctant to go to school or develops a fear of walking, or riding the bus, to school.
- Appears sad, depressed, anxious, moody.
- Coming back from school the child seems withdrawn or teary.
- Suffers from frequent physical illnesses such as headaches and stomach aches.
Effects of Bullying
Many parents tend not to consider bullying a serious issue. Some even see it as a rite of passage, an important part of the child’s growing up. But science says otherwise. According to health experts, the damaging impact of bullying can last a lifetime. Its long-term effects include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Substance abuse.
- Self-harm and getting involved in self-destructive behavior.
- Higher risk of suicide ideas, plans, and attempts.
- Having trouble maintaining a healthy relationship in their adult life.
- Poor performance and lack of ambition in their job.
- Increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders.
Help Your Child Deal with Bullying
Whether your child is getting bullied because of his weight, race, religion, or gender identity, it’s important that you know how to support him and take proper action. Sometimes that action can be as simple as letting him talk or it might mean contacting the authorities. Whatever the case, it all starts by sitting down with your child and giving him all your attention and care.
1. Listen, don’t Judge
If you notice any of these telltale signs I listed above on your child or if the child comes to you to tell you she’s being bullied, don’t panic. Just encourage her to talk. Ask her about what happened in a calm voice and appear attentive all the time.
It’s not the child’s fault that she was bullied. But your child doesn’t know that. If you get upset, she might think you’re blaming her which will make things worse. This is why it’s important not to judge neither your child nor the other child who’s bullying her. You don’t know the whole story yet, so don’t jump to conclusions.
At this point you want your child to talk about what happened and how it made her feel. Talking about her feelings helps alleviate the negative impact of the experience and makes her better equipped to cope with it. For the most part, the child just wants a sympathetic ear.
So be that ear. Listen, show understanding, be empathetic, and don’t show emotions. You’ll help her more by remaining calm and validating her feelings than by getting hysterical or overreacting. Only when you’ve had the full story and made sure that it was really bullying and not just an isolated incident, will you be able to decide on what to do next.
2. Practice Role Playing with your Child
To help your child cope with bullying there are many strategies you would want to try. One of those strategies is to role-play with your child. For the child, it will look like a game of playacting which means he’ll enjoy it. But it’s more than just a game and it gives him the opportunity to take better control over the situation.
You will take the role of the bully. It’s not a very pleasant role but, remember, you’re helping your child. The child plays herself. Now go ahead and create different scenarios where you bully him. Start with mild criticisms in order not to elicit a strong reaction from him.
The purpose of this game is to help the child gain control over a situation where he usually feels powerless and at a loss as what to do. Encourage the child to speak up and not show fear when facing the bully. You may stop at any time if it gets too intense. But with practice, the child will learn to stand up for himself.
3. Build the Child’s Self-Esteem
As we have seen, bullies prey on those with low self-esteem. Building your child’s sense of self-worth and confidence is a good way to combat the negative impact of bullying. The logic here is when the bully fails to get a reaction from your child, the bullying will stop.
To help your child build her self-esteem, encourage her to get involved in social situations that help her shine and reward her with positive feedback. If the child has hobbies, then she should spend more time enjoying them. If she doesn’t, help her find something interesting to do. An immersive activity, especially one that your child likes, will keep her mind off the negative effects of bullying.
Try to reinforce the child’s positive behavior. Praising her good qualities will bring out the best in her. Tell her what you like about her and why she’s such a unique child. Your positive words will promote her confidence and undo the psychological damage inflicted by the bully.
4. Teach your Child How to Act
This strategy can be practiced along with the role-playing game. Since the bully’s goal is to have control and power over the victim, you need to teach your child not to give control or power to the bully. What this means is, if the bully fails to make the victim feel bad, then the bully has failed. Tell your child to counter the negative remarks by the bully with positive ones he repeats to himself.
Tears are a precious commodity which the bully craves. Tell your child never to cry in front of the bully. Tears show the bully that he managed to hurt the victim’s feelings. Practice with your child a scenario where a situation will make him cry, but instead, he laughs at the bully’s remarks.
It also helps to teach your child to voice his own feelings when he finds himself in a stressful situation. Let him express out loud how the bully’s words make him angry. He can follow that by asking the bully to stop using them. When done with a confident voice and without tears it will send the bully a message that the bullying tactics are not working.
5. Encourage your Child to Make Friends
A supportive network of friends is as important to a child as it is to an adult. We all need, at least, that one close friend where we can feel safe and share our innermost thoughts. When it comes to bullying having one or more friends offers better protection against bullies. It’s much easier for a bully to pick on a kid sitting alone during lunch break than on a child sitting in a group.
A good friend’s role against bullying is vital. That friend will be by your child’s during the times when she’ll more likely get bullied. Some children find it easier to confide in a friend than a teacher or their parents. And the positive words that a friend tells the bullying victim have a powerful healing effect on the child.
Help your child make friends. These can be from the school she attends, or through other groups with shared interests such as arts, theatre, or dance groups. The bigger the network of friends she has, the more confidence she gains when facing her bully.
6. Reach out to the School
If the bullying continues and gets worse, you might need to report it to the teacher. Before you reach out to the school, it’s important you log every bullying incident your child has been the victim of. Write down dates, what was said, and who was there.
Many schools have their own anti-bullying programs. These programs apply some of the strategies we covered here. Teachers will also monitor your child during recess and lunch hour and make sure no interaction takes place between her and the bully.
You might also need the help of a therapist in cases of severe bullying. Many communities offer to help parents of bullied children get a better handle on the situation. Check with your local community for the resources they provide.