At only 10 years old, life started to cave in on Spencer as he went from outgoing and gregarious to isolated and afraid. His grades began to fall and reports of poor behavior and waning attention reports were addressed to the parents. Home life was stable, he had friends and seemed happy. What could shift a young boy so quickly and in such drastic measure?
As it turned out, Spencer was being cornered in school by a triad of bullies who would gang up on him, shoving him into corners and calling him names, threatening him if he told anyone. Going to school became a torturous task of survival.
While Morgan, a 12 year popular student, began to experience bouts of extreme sadness and lack of confidence in her abilities after learning a group of girls were spreading false rumors about her.
The types of bullying experienced by Spencer and Morgan are both numerous and common. Repeatedly surveys report that most children, especially teens experience bullying at school and most of them suffer in silence.
Simple tasks like recess, study time or even going to the bathroom can turn into a nightmare for children leaving emotional and even physical pain to deal with for years. A bully can turn something like going to the bus stop into a traumatic experience for kids. Bullying can leave deep emotional scars. And in extreme situations, it can involve violent threats, property damage, or someone getting seriously hurt.
If your child is being bullied, you may not always know because they often won’t tell you, requiring you to watch for certain signs. There are ways to help your child be prepared to cope and lessen the impact.
Why Kids Bully
Sometimes a child needs a victim; someone who seems emotionally or physically weaker, to feel more important, popular, or in control. Although some bullies are bigger or stronger than their victims, often it’s emotional abuse and can be just as harmful.
In all things, we treat people how we’ve learned to be treated. Some children may think their behavior is normal because they come from families or other settings where everyone regularly gets angry, shouts or calls each other names. We’re all in constant learning and sometimes a child just needs a good reset to a different level of behavior.
Being teased by a friend or sibling is completely normal and is rarely harmful when done in a mutual way with both kids playfully having fun. Yet when teasing becomes hurtful, unkind, and constant, it crosses the line into bullying and needs to stop.
Bullying is defined as intentional tormenting in physical, verbal, or psychological ways from shoving, name-calling, hitting, threats, mocking or stealing and damaging of personal property. Shaming, spreading rumors and taunting are all forms of bullying and making another feel uncomfortable. Social media and texting can also be used to further the damage by sharing of inappropriate pictures and harassing.
Bullying is serious and cannot be left as something kids simply must struggle through. Bullying leads to lack of self worth and in some severe cases, suicides and school shootings.
Signs of Bullying
Often a child won’t tell you about bullying because of the shame and guilt associated with not being able to handle their environment on their own. As a result, it can be difficult to know if it’s happening.
Watch for the warning signs. Is your child acting differently, seem anxious, or not eating, sleeping well, or doing the things they usually enjoy? When kids seem moodier or more upset than usual, or when they start avoiding certain situations (like taking the bus to school), it might be because of a bully.
If your child won’t talk about it, bring it up casually. You may share a memory from your childhood having had to confront a bully. Stories and sharing experiences bring you closer and we learn through reflection of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Often children just need to be assured that you’re on their side and will come to the rescue if they ever have their own experience. Let them feel comfortable and have permission to speak about their experiences to another adult such as a teacher, counselor, family friend, or even a sibling.
If your child tells you about being bullied, listen calmly and offer comfort and support. Assure them it’s not their fault, you’re not embarrassed and you will never be angry or reactive. Children take on the temperaments of the adults around them, so if you keep the environment casual, they will be more likely to open up during a causal walk or while playing together.
Children are starved for praise, so give it to them. Reward them for being brave to talk about it, they’re not alone and a lot of people get bullied at some point during school years.
Remind them you’ll figure it out together and go to the school immediately to discuss with the teacher and/or principal to monitor the situation for further problems. School counselors are often skilled at mediating situations like these and not fueling further resentments with over protective parents possibly getting fueled or reactive in defense.
Begin documenting everything that is happening and do NOT approach the other parent. Focus on your child and use the appropriate channels to help both children come to appropriate conflict resolution, so both can grow and get back on track.
Most schools have bullying policies and anti-bullying programs. In addition, many school districts have bullying laws and policies. Find out about the laws in your community.
Advice for Kids
It may be tempting to tell a kid to fight back. After all, you’re angry that your child is suffering and maybe you were told to “stand up for yourself” when you were young. Or you may worry that your child will continue to suffer at the hands of the bully, and think that fighting back is the only way to put a bully in his or her place.
But gone are the days of two children being able to duke-it-out on the playground to win their respect on the field. Fighting is serious and will lead to both kids only getting expelled, introducing further problems for everyone.
Help them learn to walk away, tell an adult immediately and remove themselves from the situation until they can get proper support and reinforcements.
Here are some other strategies to discuss with kids:
- Hold the anger. It’s natural to get upset by the bully, but that only fuels the situation by making them feel more powerful. Practice not reacting by crying or looking red or upset. Practice “cool down” strategies such as counting to 10, writing down their angry words, taking deep breaths, or walking away. Sometimes the best thing to do is to teach kids to wear a “poker face” until they are clear of any danger (smiling or laughing may provoke the bully).
- Tell an adult. Teachers, principals, parents, and lunchroom personnel at school can all help stop bullying. Whomever the child feels comfortable with. You can also introduce the child to several school adults as “safe people” to alert.
- Avoid the bully and always be with a friend. Use a different bathroom and go to your locker when others are around. Bullies almost always feed on isolation so if the child is with others, they’ll be safe.
- Act brave, walk away, and ignore the bully. Firmly and clearly tell the bully to stop, then walk away. By ignoring the bully, you’re showing that you don’t care and will probably get bored with you.
To help restore confidence, encourage, encourage, encourage. Empowering your child to make positive decisions and take ownership of their environment, create boundaries and stand up for themselves is a power way to build good self esteem. Participation in clubs, sports, or other enjoyable activities builds strength and friendships.
Listen. Listen, Listen. Provide a listening ear and encourage your kids to also tell you about the good parts of their day, and listen equally attentively. Make sure they know you believe in them and that you’ll do what you can to address any bullying that occurs.
If your family or friends are dealing with bullying, reach out to me for ways we can help find solutions.
I’m here for your (and your children’s) good mental health,