It is the first month of school for many of our children out there which can be a very exciting time. For many parents, it means their house is a little quieter in the day and the return to a normal routine. For children it means a new pencils, a fun backpack, seeing their friends every day, and a fresh start. However, this time of year can also lead to anxiety and the fear of not “fitting in”. For some children, it can also mean bullying. It is vital that pediatricians and parents understand what bullying is as well as what to look for and what to do if a child is affected by bullying.
Bullying is an unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. This behavior is typically repeated over time. Bullying encompasses verbal abuse, social abuse, and physical abuse. Verbal abuse is writing or saying cruel things. It includes teasing, name-calling, threats, taunting, and inappropriate sexual comments. Social bullying is when someone hurts someone else’s reputation or relationships. It includes leaving someone out on purpose, spreading rumors about someone, telling other children not to be friends with someone, and embarrassing someone in public. This can include cyberbullying, which can take place through text messaging, social media websites, apps, e-mail, web forums, or multi-player online games. Cyberbullying has the potential to “go viral” and spread very quickly. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Both boys and girls can be a bully or be bullied.
The effects of bullying, both of the bullying and the bullied, can have long-term consequences. Kids who are bullied can experience depression and anxiety. These issues may persist into adulthood. They also can have an increased amount of health complaints and decreased academic achievement. In fact, children who are bullied are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school. Kids who bully others are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults, get into fights, vandalize property, and drop out of school. They are also more likely to partake in early sexual activity, have criminal convictions as adults, and be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults.
Due to all of these potential negative consequences, it is important for both pediatricians and parents to be able to recognize signs of both being bullied and bullying others. Only 40% of children notify an adult in times of bullying. Therefore, it is important for pediatricians and parents to ask kids about bullying with questions such as, “how are things going at school?” or “is anyone being picked on?”. Since not all children being bullied will exhibit physical signs, it is important for parents to look for many different signs and symptoms. These include unexplainable injuries, lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry, frequent headaches or stomach aches, and changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating.
Other signs of bullying include difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares, declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school, sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide. Signs that children are bullying others includes getting into physical or verbal fights, becoming increasingly aggressive, getting sent to the principal’s office or to detention frequently, having unexplained extra money or new belongings, blaming others for their problems, not accepting responsibility for their actions, and being competitive and worrying about their reputation or popularity.
Even after identifying that a child is being bullied or is a bully themselves, it is hard to know what to do. In the case of a child being bullied, one of the first steps is teaching children how to respond. It is important to teach children to look the bully in the eye, stand tall and stay calm, and to know when to walk away. Also teach your child to have them say firmly things such as “I don’t like what you are doing” or “Please do not talk to me that way”. This will not be instinctive to most children so it is important to practice these skills so they feel more prepared when the time comes. Parents should also encourage their children to make friends with other children inside and outside of school. This can be done by encouraging children in activities that they are interested such as team sports, music groups, or other social clubs.
Another important thing to teach children is to know how to ask for help. Children should know that being bullied is not their fault and they should reach out to their teacher, school counselor, or school principal. Parents should talk with the school principal if the child is too scared to ask for help or if the child continues to be fearful or affected. If the results from these conversations are not resulting in action on the school’s part, make a written request to the principal asking for a copy of the school district’s policies on reporting and investigating bullying. Most school districts have procedures for parents and others to make written reports. Some states require schools to make investigations of reports of bullying. If the local campus is not responsive, make a written request to the school superintendent.
If a child is experiencing cyberbullying only a few actions need to be taken differently. First, don’t threaten to take away the child’s devices as this may seem as a punishment. Instead, if there is online evidence of the bullying, take and save a screenshot in order to report the bullying to the social media platforms in which the abuse happened as well the school or police if appropriate. Otherwise, support the child in the same ways as mentioned above.
It can also be a stressful situation as well if your child is bullying others. It is important to be consistent and set firm limits on a child’s aggressive behavior by using effective, nonphysical discipline such as loss of privileges. Another way to influence your child’s behavior is by being a positive role model and showing children they can communicate what they want without teasing, threatening, or hurting others. In addition to these measures, help children understand how bullying can hurt other children. Communication is also important in these situations and parents should be speaking with the school and other parents in order to try to find practical solutions to the bullying that is occurring.
Chelsea Day, MD
American Academy of Pediatrics. Bullying and Cyberbullying. https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/resilience/Pages/Bullying-and-Cyberbullying.aspx. August 28th, 2018.
Healthy Children. Bullying: It’s Not Okay. https://www.healthychildr en.org/English/safety-prevention/at-play/Pages/Bullying-Its-Not-Ok.aspx. August 28th, 2018.
Healthy Children. Cyberbullying.https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Cyberbullying.aspx. August 28th, 2018.
Stop Bullying. Warning Signs for Bullying. https://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/warning-signs/index.html. August 28th, 2018.