Signs that might indicate your child is the victim of bullying or cyberbullying include:
- marked changes in patterns of daily activities, such as overeating or eating less than normal,
- plummeting grades, an unwillingness to attend school, or complaints of being sick in order to avoid school,
- changes in sleep patterns,
- use of drugs and alcohol.
If you see these signs, talk with your child. One way to bring up a difficult topic is to depersonalize it. For example, you might mention that other people have also encountered bullying. You can first talk about the problem in generic terms, and then move to a more personal question in this way: “I’ve heard a lot of people talking about bullying lately. What does that mean to you? Have you ever felt bullied by someone? On social media, do you see any of your friends being picked on? If so, how did you respond?”
You can safeguard your child from being bullied or catch the problem early on by doing several things:
Be open. Check in often so you can be better able to spot signs of bullying early on. Some of the issues that lead to bullying could be embarrassing or involve wrongdoing. Don’t be afraid to bring up concerns. Conflict can be helpful to the growth of your parent-child relationship. Talk to your child about how bullying has been around since the beginning of history. It’s not unique to this generation; it’s a humanity issue that even Jesus faced.
Build confidence. Encourage your child’s strengths and passions. Taking part in activities he loves or excels in will help him develop confidence, which can ward off the attention of bullies.
Set boundaries. Set guidelines for technology use. We’ll talk about technology specifically in part four.
Make your child accountable. Let your child know that part of your job as a responsible, loving parent is to be aware of her emails, texts, and social media postings. You want to see that your child is being treated well, treating others well, and being a good decision-maker.
Eat dinner together. Consistent family dinners reduce issues with cyberbullying. Family dinners increase family communication, openness in the family, and guidance from parents.
The effects of bullying and cyberbullying can be dramatic. They demolish self-esteem and lead to depression and anxiety that can last into adulthood. Many kids silently question themselves, their sense of belonging, worth, and competence, all because of the powerfully distorting effects of bullying. Neurobiological research confirms that social pain is equal to the physical pain of being punched. Bullying is like being repeatedly punched. You can only take so much. Many kids end up wrestling with what’s called learned helplessness, which means they expect bad things to happen to them and believe they can’t do anything about it. Kids with learned helplessness begin to filter life through a very negative and self-defeating lens. They see the issue as never-ending. In the most tragic cases, teens and preteens may feel driven to self-harm or suicide. If your teen is being bullied, he needs help immediately.
To be proactive, teach your children strategies and skills for dealing with bullying. Here are a few:
Disengage from a bully. Give your kids phrases they can use in a bullying incident. They could use humor to defuse a tense situation, or use straightforward language, such as “That’s enough!” Tell them to walk away or avoid an altercation if possible.
Don’t fight back. While self-defense training is helpful, advising your children to answer violence with violence isn’t recommended. Physical aggression can escalate to a point where a child’s safety—or even life— may be seriously threatened. Likewise, schools that have a zero-tolerance policy for violence may impose punishments on your child, even if he’s not the instigator of the fight.
Build social and emotional skills. Research in Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy and Practice reports that building social and emotional skills and learning coping skills are effective ways adults can help children deal with the issue of bullying.
Know where to go. Help your child know where she can go at school if she ever feels threatened. Choose a specific location or a person such as a school counselor, a trusted teacher, or administrator.
Encourage openness. Encourage your child to talk with you or another adult when he feels intimidated or afraid, so he can get help and perspective on the other person’s behavior to end the bullying. In situations where he feels emotionally trapped in feelings of fear, talking can sometimes help him break out of his loop of fearful emotions.
If your child is being bullied, you might be tempted to give free rein to your own strong emotions, especially in a meeting with school officials. Resist the urge. Yelling or reacting explosively may embarrass your child and cause her to not tell you about future episodes. Calm, measured action is more likely to lead her to want to tell you more. Work on developing a plan of action with the school. Be part of the solution.
Children who bully or have been bullied have an increased likelihood of developing a psychiatric disorder. It’s helpful to consult a licensed counselor who works with children.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23482.