For some children, the start of school unfortunately means the beginning of bullying. Thousands of students return to school only to face intimidation and cruelty at the hands of their peers. For too long, this behavior, which includes not only physical and verbal torment but also isolation and rejection, has been viewed as just kids’ stuff.
Writing off bullying with a “kids will be kids” is largely a thing of the past, and with good reason. It’s only in taking the problem seriously that we’ll truly be able to help kids live their lives bully-free.
The American Medical Association estimates that each year 3.2 million kids in the United States are victims of bullying, and that a whopping 3.7 million engage in bullying. With those numbers, no one can assume it’s something that just happens to other people’s kids. We all need to be aware.
As adults, most of us can remember seeing or even participating in bullying behavior when we were young. Some of us even know what it’s like to be the victim — to be scared, to not want to go to school for fear of torment and abuse. Today, with the advancement of technology, bullying extends beyond the school grounds. This is called cyberbullying.
What can parents do to help their children have a peaceful, respectful school year?
It’s important to teach your child everyone deserves respect. This includes accepting differences that are racial, cultural or ability based. You have to model this behavior in all your interactions so your child adopts it.
Make time to talk with your child about what’s happening at school. Remind him or her to report bullying to a trusted adult, whether it’s happening to him or her or to someone else. Most kids aren’t bullies or victims, they’re bystanders. Bystanders can play an important role in stopping bullying by refusing to encourage or cheer on the bully and by supporting the victim.
If you learn that your child is the victim of bullying, here are some general things you should and should not do.
What you should do:
- Tell your child, “I’m here for you. I believe you. You are not alone in this.”
- Tell your child it’s not his or her fault.
- Report the bullying to school leaders.
What you should not do:
- Do not minimize, rationalize or explain away the bully’s behavior.
- Do not rush in to solve the problem for your child.
- Do not tell your child to avoid or ignore the bully.
- Do not tell your child to fight back.
- Do not confront the bully or the bully’s parents alone.
Once everything is out in the open, you can go about making sure your child is equipped to handle these kinds of situations in the future. Help build their self-confidence by encouraging them to participate in activities that make them feel good, whether it’s athletic, academic, creative, technological, etc. And keep in mind that kids learn by example, so the next time a driver cuts you off in traffic or an umpire blows a call, make sure your reaction is one you would want to see in them later on.
What to watch for
As a pediatrician, I am able to see the physical effects of bullying. But as the old saying about sticks and stones goes, the real damage is so often not the visible kind. Kids who are being bullied can show a lot of symptoms that go beyond bumps and bruises. Their whole personalities can start to change. They can become more withdrawn, lose their self-confidence, and not show any interest in their friends, family and doing the things they’ve always loved.
While you hope that your child will tell you if there is any trouble they have in their lives, victims of bullying often suffer in silence. But there are signs you can watch out for, including:
Physical symptoms: Even if they’re not having physical confrontations, bullying can affect your child’s body in many ways. If you start to notice headaches, stomach pains, sleeping problems, frequent illness or even faking illnesses to avoid school, these could be signs of trouble.
Problems at school: Bullying can be all-consuming, causing even the best of students to have trouble concentrating. If they feel school is an unsafe place that will affect their ability to learn.
More combative: Being bullied can lead to a sense of frustration, helplessness and anger, which could result in your child lashing out at friends or siblings, and even picking fights.
Online bullying education and prevention resources for parents
We want what is best for our children, but we might feel powerless and overwhelmed when it comes to bullying. That’s why Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is proud to offer a free online bullying education and prevention resources for parents of children in grades K4 through high school called Act Now! What Parents Need to Know About Bullying. Visit parentsactnow.com to learn more.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has primary care offices throughout southeast Wisconsin, including Mayfair Pediatrics in Wauwatosa. Find a pediatrician near you.
Learn more about Michael O’Reilly, MD.