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Helping Our Children Deal with Bullying

Recent stories in the national news about several young people who committed suicide as a response to being bullied have raised alarm among communities and parents. We all want our children to be happy, safe and healthy. Here are some signs of bullying that parents can watch for and ways to intervene.

What Is Bullying?

A bully asserts his or her power by repeatedly being aggressive toward a weaker person. The bully may use social, emotional or physical tactics. The aggression may be physical, such as hitting, stealing and threatening with a weapon; verbal, such as name calling, public humiliation and intimidation; or focused on relationships, such as spreading rumors, social rejection, exclusion and ignoring.

Bullying commonly occurs at school, when supervision is limited such as during recess or at lunch time. It can also happen on the way to and from school. Bullying also can take place over the Internet or on cell phones (often called "cyber bullying").

Effects of Bullying

Both bullies and victims report greater health problems and poorer emotional and social adjustment.

Victims usually are physically weak, emotionally vulnerable or easy to provoke, with attention or conduct problems. They tend to be anxious, insecure and lonely, and they lack social skills. They are more likely to show signs of depression, physical complaints brought on by emotional distress (headaches, belly aches, body aches) and suicidal thinking.

A child who is a victim may have long-term consequences in adulthood, including continued poor self-esteem and involvement in abusive relationships.

Bullies usually have higher social standing and conduct disorders. They tend to have higher rates of depression and other psychological distress. Bullies may have negative attitudes toward school and are more likely to use drugs.

Childhood bullies are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, and they are four times as likely to be involved in criminal behavior by their mid-twenties.

How to Recognize and Help a Victim

What can we do, as parents and community members, to help our children? We can start by learning the signs of bullying and ways to intervene.

To find out if your child is being bullied, look for these signs:

  • Making excuses to not go to school

  • Wanting to take something such as a knife to school to protect themselves

  • Unexplained bruises and torn clothing

  • Needing extra school supplies or money

  • Always losing belongings

  • Unusual problems with sleeping, appetite or school performance

  • Showing secretive or sullen behavior, or having temper outbursts

  • Being very hungry after school (someone may be taking lunch or money)

  • Making a lot of trips to the school nurse, especially during lunch or recess

  • Rushing to the bathroom after school (your child may be scared to use the bathroom at school due to threats)

If you're concerned your child may be a victim of bullying, consider these ways to intervene:

  • Never tell your child to ignore bullying or to retaliate.

  • Talk with your child. Ask your child what's going on at school and how he or she is feeling. Never blame your child for the bullying.

  • Don't criticize how your child handled the bullying. Help your child come up with safety strategies such as telling an adult, walking away and asking friends for support.

  • Teach your child self-respect. Confident children are less likely to become victims. (Children should be proud of things they are good at, and they may even practice silent pep talks when being picked on.)

  • Encourage friendships and build social skills. There is strength in numbers. Bullies tend to go after children who are alone. Help your child practice ways to share, compromise, change the topic to avoid conflict and apologize when appropriate. Something that has been practiced is easier to use in a stressful situation.

  • Teach body language. Bullies will notice a child who looks weak. Encourage your child to stand up straight and hold their head high.

  • Do not encourage physically fighting back. Bullies are usually stronger, have many friends and are likely to take revenge.

  • Let the school know your safety worries. Establish a relationship with the principal and teachers. Report incidents of bullying. Write down what happened and how it was handled.

How to Recognize and Help a Bully

It's equally important to be aware that your child could be a bully. Watch for these signs noted by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP):

  • Has been caught or accused of fighting before

  • Is defiant, dominant or aggressive with friends

  • Is easily frustrated when things don't go his or her way

  • Puts down other children or talks about revenge

Males are more likely to be physical bullies and females more likely to be verbal bullies. Bullies are often poor students, and they are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. Bullies are typically not loners and misfits; usually, they are popular and get others to join them.

Why do children become bullies? There are many reasons. A bully may:

  • Be bored and seeking excitement

  • Have been a victim of bullying and bullies others to feel powerful

  • Want to become more popular

  • Dislike differences and target anyone he or she sees as different

  • Not care that their actions are hurtful

  • Have parents who allow them to do anything they want (giving in to a child's aggressive demands teaches the child that bullying works)

  • Have parents who verbally or physically abuse them

Here are some ways to prevent or stop your child from being a bully:

  • Avoid yelling and don't be physically aggressive with your child.

  • Listen openly to complaints against your child from other parents or teachers.

  • Examine your own behavior. Do you belittle others, call them names, intimidate people or become aggressive with others?

  • Criticize the behavior, not the child. Do not label your child as "good" or "‘bad."

  • Resist being overly permissive, especially if your child is demanding something from you.

  • Help your child imagine how it might feel to be bullied by others, and that people dislike bullies.

  • Discuss and develop healthy ways for your child to display angry feelings without taking them out on others.

  • Change unhealthy family patterns if needed, especially with how family members express anger.

  • Be clear that bullying actions must stop and explain consequences for future bullying actions.

  • Insist your child apologize to their victim(s) and replace any damaged property.

  • Notice and reward your child when they express anger in healthy, acceptable ways; notice and reward good behavior. This is the most important way to change behavior.

Parents need to follow the same rules. You cannot teach children to stop bullying if they are being bullied, abused or scared by adults.

What About Professional Help for Bullies?

If bullying behavior continues, get help for your child as soon as possible. Individual, family or group psychotherapy may be helpful. Therapy might involve learning new ways of behaving toward others, setting new goals and learning healthy ways to express distress, anger or sadness rather than picking on others. Sometimes medicine may be prescribed to help decrease aggressiveness and irritability or to treat possible underlying depression.

Without intervention and help, bullying can lead to serious school, social, emotional and even legal problems.

What About Professional Help for Victims of Bullies?

Seek help if your child is being bullied and starting to show signs of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Treatment can involve either individual or family therapy to learn healthy ways to cope, build social skills and practice ways to build self-esteem. Medications may be appropriate for significant depression or anxiety or to treat underlying conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which may contribute to your child being targeted at school.

All parents can get involved with their schools to change a poor situation, whether their child is a victim of bullying or is bullying others.

Also, you should manage your children's use of technology. Keep computers in public areas, not in bedrooms, and let your children know that, if you are concerned about their well-being, you will review text messages, email and other communications. This will help you intervene if your child is participating in bullying or being bullied over the Internet or through text messages.

Dr. Manjinder Brar is a psychiatrist at PacMed’s Renton clinic. She received her medical degree from Saba University School of Medicine, Netherlands-Antilles, and did her training at State University of New York in Syracuse and at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, in New York City .

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