Bullying 101: Advice for parents in all situations

Bullying 101: Advice for parents in all situations
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School is back in session and that can be stressful for students of all ages. One of the biggest worries is often peer relations. Kids stress about how their classmates will view them and treat them. For some, the stress can be heightened when a bully is involved.

Impact on the mind

“Repeated bullying is a risk factor for mental health concerns,” SSM Health psychiatrist Dr. Nicholas Lane said. “Those who are subjected to ongoing bullying can develop depression, anxiety disorders, school avoidance and even suicidal ideation.”

Making matters worse, some victims of bullying may have already been having some troubles. Lane says bullies tend to target those they perceive as weak or different in some way, making kids with mental health difficulties an at-risk group.

As parents, it may be hard to communicate with your child about these problems. Victims are often reluctant to talk for a variety of reasons, including guilt, embarrassment or fear of retribution. But there are steps that can be taken to encourage open communication, which can immensely help your child.

What to do if your child is being bullied

It can be very upsetting for a parent or caregiver to learn that their child is being bullied. But if you’re in that situation, it’s important to keep your emotions in check so you can respond calmly and supportively.

“Starting the conversation will be difficult, but you need to reassure your child that you are going to help them figure out how to get through it,” Lane said. “Victims should also know that they’re being courageous for talking about the problem, and that they are not at fault.”

Every situation is unique, but Lane has some general advice that you can offer your child:

Walk away or ignore the bully: Bullies are generally looking to provoke a response in their target and will sometimes give up and move on if this doesn’t occur.
Try to stay in groups: Bullies often act out in situations where they feel they are not being monitored.
Talk to other adults: Teachers and/or guidance counselors are great resources at school.
Encourage them to get involved in activities they enjoy: Sports, drama, music or art are just some of the things that might help build self-confidence.
Practice role-playing at home: Bullies are usually looking for someone they perceive as weak, so it can be helpful to work on assertive language and nonverbal communication. Teach your child to stand tall and make eye contact with a bully, and come up with confident (and nonthreatening) phrases like “friends don’t treat each other that way.”

What to do if your child is the bully

Just as it is hard for some parents to hear that their child is being bullied, it can be difficult to learn that your child is the perpetrator. If you are contacted by someone regarding bullying concerns, it’s important to take them seriously rather than minimizing them or becoming defensive.

“When talking to your child about this, get their perspective before making any accusations,” Lane said. “And while assuring them of your love and support, let them know that bullying is not acceptable, and you’re there to help them change the behavior.”

If discipline is needed, physical discipline isn’t recommended. That may make it more likely for a child who is already having some bullying behaviors to use more physical force on others.

Some kids with anger or bullying issues may benefit from mental health treatment. It could help with developing skills to better handle frustrations or deal with underlying problems. Often, but not always, a child who is a bully may have once been targeted by a bully themselves.

What to do when your child is the bystander

The term bystander, by definition, means someone present who does not take part. But in bullying situations, they play an important role. They can be a powerful force in reducing the problem.

“Bullies will often take silence as implied approval for their behavior,” Lane said. “A simple ‘stop’ or ‘that’s not cool’ from a bystander can be a powerful deterrent, especially if it comes from a group of kids.”

Schools regularly play a central role in educating children about these situations, but parents and caregivers shouldn’t be shy about getting involved. You may be able to provide valuable input just by talking to your child about what is going on at school. If he or she is witnessing bullying behaviors, try brainstorming possible responses or solutions. You could also recommend that the child go find an adult right away.

Frequent conversations will only benefit communication. And keep them going throughout the school year, because bullying isn’t just a back-to-school concern, it can happen at any time.