Mental Health Parenting Safety

Don’t let the bullies win

One of the toughest issues we have to handle as parents is bullying.

Just the word can make many of us clench up as we remember times in our own childhood when we or our friends were bullied.

Bullying is an old issue, and like it or not, it’s everywhere. Today it’s taking on newer and more subtle forms, from the ”mean girl” (or boy) phenomenon to cyberbullying.

No punching allowed

In many ways, physical bullying with its outward signs is far easier to deal with. It’s a safety issue, right? So when it happens, meetings are set up with teachers, principals and involved parents, and for the most part, a resolution occurs, whether that’s punishment for the bully, a transfer to another classroom for either party or more.

But what do you do when it’s social bullying—especially if your child is reluctant to talk about it out of embarrassment or fear of doing something to make it worse?

If only we knew a quick and easy answer to that question, there would be no more bullying. But here’s what we do know:

Children who are perceived as being different are at higher risk of being bullied.

Differences could include a physical condition, a mental condition, a learning disability, race, socioeconomic level, hobbies/interests and more. Children who easily cry, grow angry or give in are also targets. If you as a parent think your child is at risk of being bullied, if your child is starting a new school or if your child has been bullied in the past, it’s worth a conversation with the teachers and principal to find out what level of bullying exists in your child’s school and what programs are in place to help reduce bullying.

Talking with your child is always a good idea.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: One of the best things parents can do is to simply talk with their child. Always ask how things are going at school and ask about friend groups. If your child hints that bullying may be happening, gently ask probing questions to find out more.

Arm your child with the right tools.

If your child is being bullied, how you or your child should react tends to be different in every situation. But here are few universal strategies:

  • Don’t give the bully a chance to pick on your child. As much as possible, your child should avoid the bully.
  • Teach your child to stand up for himself or herself. Bullies tend to pick on those they perceive as weaker. Practice with your child what he or she might say—using a strong, calm voice—the next time a bully approaches them. This could include things like: ”That’s not funny—that was mean” or ”cut it out” or even simply ”that’s bullying.”
  • There’s power in numbers, so have your child walk to class with a friend. A bully might think twice about picking on more than one person.
  • Tell a teacher. Sometimes bullying stops as soon as a teacher finds out.
  • When the problem is a clique or friend group that has turned on your child, that’s extra tough. Remember there are two sides to every story. When former friends turn on one another, it’s often the case that something happened. If so, there may be an opportunity for your child to have an honest discussion with one or more of these friends and fix the issue. In the meantime, if the school is large enough, encourage your child to expand their circle of friends through sports or other shared activities—or enroll your child in extracurricular sports or other hobbies.
  • Teach your child to help prevent bullying. If your child sees others being bullied, your child could be a friend by sitting with them at lunch, walking with them to class, and teaching them how to stand up to bullies, too.

Know when to intervene.

When your child’s physical safety is at issue or if the bullying hasn’t stopped or lessened, it’s time to step in. Raise the issue with the principal and teachers. Other parents may need to be involved as well. You’ll especially want to get involved if your child starts to show signs like frequent headaches or stomachaches, changes in eating habits such as not eating or being very hungry (due to avoiding the lunchroom), difficulty sleeping and declining grades. These are signs that the bullying is having a real impact on your child’s well-being.

Cyberbullying: A whole new dilemma

With the advent of phone use among kids, bullying can now become anonymous, and cyberbullying can spread like wildfire through a school. Unkind photos or comments can circulate via text or social media, putting your child right in the eye of the target.

To help combat this worrying trend, as a start, teach your child to be smart about their smartphone activities. They should never share or post anything that could hurt or embarrass themselves or others, for example. Remember, once anything is posted or sent out, it’s out of their control.

Your child should also keep their passwords safe and think twice about letting friends and others use their phone—or leaving their phone where it could be used without their knowledge.

Tell your child that phone use is a privilege. You as the parent have the right to view your child’s texts and online activities—and their friends should know this too!

Finally, as always, keep the lines of communication open. As with traditional bullying, encourage your child to let you know if he or she is being bullied online or via text. Keep copies of all communications, and bring together principals, teachers, other parents or others as needed. Stopping bullying takes the combined effort of everyone affected.

Is your child a victim of bullying?

The Children’s Hospital of Georgia has one of the area’s largest child and adolescent psychiatry and psychology programs, with specialists who can help your child with the anxiety and depression that can accompany bullying. For an appointment, call 706-721-9331.

About the author

Kathryn Strickler McLeod, MD

Pediatric General and Adolescent Medicine