We asked Melissa Faith, Ph.D., ABPP, and Celia Heppner, Psy.D., Children’s Health℠ pediatric psychologists, for some helpful insights, what signs to look for and how a concerned parent can help their child cope with the issue of bullying.
According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
An estimated 75% of children are bullied at least once during their school career, and 10-20% of children are bullied repeatedly over a much longer period of time. Children who are bullied repeatedly over a long period of time are at most risk of problems with behavior, mood, school performance and family or social relationships.
The 4 Types of Bullying
- Physical bullying is when one or more children engage in behaviors that are physical and meant to harm the victim, including hitting, pushing and kicking. It can also include throwing food or stealing belongings.
- Verbal bullying is when one or more children calls names or insults the victim.
- Relational bullying is when one or more children purposely leaves the victim out of activities, chooses not to invite the victim to parties or spreads rumors about the victim.
- Cyber bullying is when one or more children use social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Instagram), text messages, websites or other electronic media to say insulting things, lie, post pictures or spread rumors about the victim. In cyber bullying, the bully may pretend to be someone else or even pretend to be the victim.
Signs of Bullying
Changes in mood and behavior – No one knows your child or adolescent better than you. If you notice sudden changes in your child’s mood or behaviors (like sleeping patterns or eating habits), these may be signs that something significant is happening in their life and may be related to bullying.
Stomach aches, nausea, headaches or pain – Being bullied can cause a lot of stress for children. This stress can put strain on children’s bodies, leading to stomach aches, nausea, intestinal problems, headaches and other pain.
If your child is experiencing symptoms that get better during long school breaks and/or get worse just before school starts after a long break, that may be a clue that your child’s physical symptoms could be related to bullying or other school problems. Sometimes, physical symptoms may even get better on the weekends and start to worsen Sunday evening.
Losing interest in school or other activities – Children who are bullied at school, during extracurricular activities or around the neighborhood may stop feeling motivated to participate in activities. Sometimes, sadness and loneliness can make victims stop wanting to participate in activities, even if the bullying isn’t happening in that situation.
Avoiding school – Children who try to get out of going to school, especially if they used to enjoy school, sometimes do so because they are being bullied. If you notice your child trying to avoid school, it is a good idea to ask open-ended questions about what your child does not like at school.
Declining grades – Children who struggle with grades and/learning are at increased risk for being bullied, but dropping grades can also be a sign that a child is being bullied at school. Children who are bullied may have a drop in grades for many reasons, including being too embarrassed to raise his/her hand in class, not being able to pay attention in class and losing interest in doing well at school.
Not being invited to friends’ houses/birthday parties – Children who are bullied may stop being invited to friends’ houses or birthday parties either because friends are the ones who are bullying or because friends no longer want to spend time with a child who is the target of bullying.
Frequently losing belongings – If your child begins frequently losing items, like books, electronics or jewelry, this could be a sign of other children bullying your child and taking his/her belongings.
What should you do if you suspect your child is being bullied?
- Ask questions
You are your child’s best advocate and most important detective. Ask open-ended questions about how your child feels about how things are going with peers at school or in your neighborhood.
- Be supportive
Providing a warm, supportive home environment is one of the most important ways to protect bullied children from developing emotional, social and behavior problems. Sometimes this means just listening instead of jumping in right away to try to solve your child’s problems with a bully.
- Avoid being over-controlling or overprotective
If your child is bullied, the last thing you may want to do is feel less involved in their everyday lives. However, trying to control all aspects of your child’s life or trying to protect your child from any possibility of bullying can send your child a strong message that they are incapable of handling adversity themselves. Limiting your child’s exposure to peer situations can also take away important opportunities for your child to learn important social skills.
- Set the example
Children watch parents to learn rules for dealing with adversity, communicating with difficult people, problem-solving and managing interpersonal conflict. Show your child how to interact with others and how to feel about themselves by modeling confidence, assertiveness and pro-social behaviors.
- Foster best friendships
Even children who are bullied for a very long time can be protected from later depression and anxiety if they have at least one close friend. Help your child further develop friendships by encouraging your child to spend time with close, supportive friends outside of school.
- Encourage extracurricular activities
Team activities can be powerful for bullied children because they allow children to develop relationships with other children their age who enjoy similar activities. Even if your child is bullied at school, finding a team to which your child can belong without being bullied may protect your child from depression and anxiety.
- Do not blame the victim
Guiding your child to help them problem-solve and improve social skills can help children build skills they need to manage bullying. However, be careful not to send your child the message that bullying is his or her fault.
- Get the right people involved at school
After gathering information from your child, consider meeting with your child’s teachers, school counselor, and other important school personnel to develop a plan to help your child. That plan might include identifying an adult at school who your child can talk to when bullying occurs, increasing adult monitoring of unstructured school activities like lunch or recess, and/or changing your child’s seating arrangement or classroom.
- Know when to seek help
Learning that your child has been bullied is only the first step in keeping your child safe. If you notice further changes in your child’s mood, behavior, school performance, motivation to participate in activities or family relationships, seek help from a psychologist or other mental health professional.
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