Dropping your kids off at school is an exciting time, but it also means that you are leaving your precious little one at the hands, or shall we say the mercy, of their teachers and all the other kids. For the most part, those other kids will be great. Kind, smart, helpful. However, testing limits is a part of development and some kids are going to test limits in ways that can be harmful to other kids. I'm talking about bullying. There are lots of reasons why kids bully and lots of reasons why kids are bullied. An important step for parents is to be proactive (are you noticing a theme here? Proactivity is the name of the game). The following article is another great one. It really spells out what bullying is, what signs to look for if you are worried that your child is being bullied, and steps you as parents can take to reduce the bullying itself and its effects on your child. http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/bullies.html#
So what is bullying anyway? That is a more complicated question than one would think. We've all seen the way bullies are portrayed in the movies and on TV. Some big kid, usually a boy, goes up to a much smaller kid and asks for his lunch money threatening him with a "knuckle sandwich" if he doesn't get it. Is this bullying? Sure, but it doesn't always look like that. First let me tell you what it's not. Bullying is not teasing and joking between friends. Friends often tease each other and say things that some may find hurtful, but that is different from bullying. In order for bullying to occur, there has to be some kind of difference in status. This can be age, popularity, money, physical size, sexual experience (yes-in high and middle school-this can be a really significant one). All of these things may cause a differential in the way that kids are perceived by their peers and adults in the school. Messing around with someone who is of a different status than you, well that is when light-hearted teasing shifts into bullying. It is also important to point out that bullying can look very different at different ages and for the different genders. "Knuckle sandwiches" are probably more common when kids are young and definitely more common for boys. For older kids and girls, the bullying is probably more relational (google relational aggression for more information-there has been a lot of research on the topic and it is fascinating-another blog post at another time). Girls are more likely to make other girls feel bad about your appearance, spread sexual rumors, or turn friends against each other. Then there is cyberbullying. There has been a lot of attention on cyberbullying recently and for good reason. It's a horrendous new form of bullying that I am so thankful that I did not have to deal with when I was in high school. It's bad enough to have people say terrible things to you and spread rumors about you at school, but when it's online you can't escape it. And with the amount of time that children and adolescents spend on social media, the amount of exposure that they are getting to the bullying can be astronomical. I could talk all day about cyberbullying-and I will on another post-but we need to move on. So there you have it: a bullying definition in a nutshell.
Now that we've defined bullying, let's talk about how you can detect bullying. It would be great if all kids told their parents everything, but sometimes even the most open parents have kids who are tight-lipped about certain issues. Bullying is often one of them. Kids are frequently too afraid or too embarrassed to tell anyone about the bullying. So how can you decipher what's going on if they won't tell you? There are a number of signs and they are outlined in the article. I will highlight a few here. Look out for major changes: mood, grades, appetite, friends. If your child seems different-really different from a few months, weeks or days ago-take notice. There may be a specific reason for those changes. Also look for your child adamantly avoiding certain people, places, or situations. Do they not want you to drop them off at a certain place, do they want to get to school really early or really late for a reason that they can't articulate? There are lots of possibilities so be on the look out. Keep all of these things in perspective as well. Some of you may be thinking that your teenager is moody so maybe there is a bullying issue. Well, there might be, but let's be real-teenagers are almost ALWAYS moody. What I'm talking about is a change-a significant change from the way your child was previously functioning. That's really what you want to look out for. Keep in mind that many of these signs are also indicative of depression or other significant emotional issues. The most important thing is to take it seriously. Parents know their kids-they can often tell if something is wrong. If your gut is telling you there is a problem-pay attention.
Now you know how to identify if there is a problem. So now what? How do you help your child? There are ways to deal with the current bullying issue and also ways to take preventative measures that will build your child's resilience to any future attacks. The most immediate thing for a parent to do is let your child know that you hear them and are on their side. Validate any feelings they may have-anger, frustration, sadness. They really need to feel supported because bullying is often isolated. People are not usually bullied in groups. The bullies usually pick a single person, maybe a pair of kids. One or two children is easier to control than a big group. So this may be an experience where your child feels very alone. Support, support, support. Then let a trusted adult at the school know. Do not assume that you know the best person. Ask your child who they might feel comfortable telling, but do not make telling a school official a choice. You will be telling someone, just let them help decide who. If your child is not comfortable with their teacher, administrator, or counselor, the school psychologist is a great person to confide in. Just make sure you tell someone. Also, know your rights and the rights of your child. As the article outlines, many states have anti-bullying laws and almost all schools have anti-bullying rules in their Code of Conduct (or whatever it is called at your child's school). Be aware of these laws and rules and use them to your advantage.
Finally, how can you help your child avoid being the victim of bullying in the future? Let me be clear that I am NOT blaming the victim here. It is NEVER OK to bully someone. The people who must be held accountable are the bullies themselves. It would be ideal if there was no bullying behavior at all. But until it is eradicated, your child must learn how to deal with these individuals. You won't always be there to hold their hand and solve the problem for them or even with them. Hopefully, your child can utilize some of these tips and avoid becoming a bully victim in the first place. It is very important for kids to not let the bully know that he or she is bothering them. Bullies feed on the reactions of others-especially the victim. If the victim acts like all of this is no big deal and brushes off whatever the bully says then that bully will find another kid to get a rise out of. Have your child avoid the bully as much as possible, but when that is impossible, tell them to hold onto their feelings. They should NOT allow that bully get the best of them. Hold the anger until it can be let out in a safe, nonjudgmental place. It is absolutely essential that you allow your child to release some of that anger and embarrassment. Find out from your child's counselor or school psychologist if there are any groups going on that your child can join. There are also frequently groups in the community-see what yours has to offer. At the very least, allow your child to talk and process through the issue. Listen with a supportive ear and get additional support as needed.
So that's it for today! As always, comment below, tweet me @fpschDrSweeney, or contact me directly. I hope that this school year is the best yet!