We teach our children to ignore taunts, telling them the old “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” but increasingly, evidence shows that words can actually wound. Bullying is becoming recognized not just as a hurdle of childhood, but as a public health issue with serious, long-term consequences. The effects of bullying are not confined to childhood, but can impact mental health, lead to substance abuse, and in the worst case scenarios, even lead to attempted suicide.
Bullying is aggressive behavior that is repetitive and involves a real or perceived power imbalance, such as popularity or physical strength. Though any child can be a victim of bullying, it may occur due to a form of disability, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality and sexual orientation.
But how do you know if your child is at risk of bullying? At what age can bullying begin for children? How do you determine if your child is the victim of a bully? What is cyber bullying? What are the consequences of school bullying? “Children are not getting meaner, it’s just that now they have more avenues by which they can vent their frustrations to other kids,” says Dr. Heidi Kellock, Pediatric ER Physician at Florida Hospital Tampa.
“The cool-down period that children used to have when they went home from school has been lost since children are staying connected through cell phones and social media. This keeps tension high and for a child that is being bullied, gives them the feeling that they can never really escape,” she says.
Because children often do not tell their parents they are being bullied, it is important to pay attention to potential signs. This may not be as simple as it seems, as signs of bullying can vary, with some signs more obvious than others. Many children who are bullied do not tell an adult for fear of rejection or retaliation by the bully or their classmates. In some situations, the child does not want to be seen as weak for fear of additional bullying or being judged by their friends. Feelings of social isolation and humiliation are sometimes factors in why a child keeps silent about a bully.
Signs that your child may be a victim of bullying include:
- Frequent or unexplained injuries
- Lost or damaged property
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Faking illness or frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Drop in academic achievement
- Sudden avoidance of friends or social situations
The impacts of bullying can vary and include:
- Depression, anxiety and other health complaints through adulthood
- Victims are more likely to miss or drop out of school and see their GPA and test scores drop.
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Abusive behavior towards other children and family members (parents/ other adults)
- In rare cases, a victim may retaliate with acts of violence.
“We see the effects of bullying in all forms in the emergency room,” Kellock says. “We may see a child that has been physically assaulted by another child; these injuries can range from bumps and bruises to more serious injuries requiring more involved treatment. We also see children that have been pushed to their emotional limits, and are now manifesting signs of depression and anxiety; this can even get to the point that a child may try to harm themselves as a way of escaping from what they see as a continuous cycle of hurt and abuse.
According to Kellock, treating a bullied child is very difficult, and, like so many things, “takes a village.” She says the victim may require immediate medical care for physical injuries which can be identified and treated in the emergency department, but, to truly treat someone who has been bullied also likely requires the attention of other specialists such as counselors and psychiatrists to heal the emotional wounds that lie beneath the physical injuries.
It is important to recognize that there is more than one category of bullying:
- Verbal – including name calling, teasing, threats or sexual comments.
- Relational – involving deliberately preventing someone from joining or being part of a group, whether it is a lunch table, game, social activity or sport.
- Social and Cyber – spreading rumors and public humiliation in cyberspace. This can involve someone spreading mean words, lies and false rumors through e-mails, text messages and social media posts.
- Physical – hitting, kicking, pinching, tripping, pushing and taking or destroying of personal property.
Among those categories, cyber bullying has recently become one of the more pervasive and difficult for victims to escape. Nearly 43 percent of children have been bullied in some form online. Cyber bullying can take place through email or cell phones, by editing photos and creating fake profiles to bully their victims on social networking such as Facebook.
How should you respond if you learn your child is being bullied? In addition to modeling kindness and respect and keeping up open communication with your child, help him or her to understand what bullying looks like and how to react when it happens.
Consider discussing these strategies to help keep your children happy and safe:
- Encourage them to stay near adults or in a group of friends and to report bullying to a trusted adult.
- Discuss how to safely stand up to bullies by using humor, clearly and confidently saying “Stop,” and walking away from the situation if these strategies do not work.
- Encourage him or her to get help or show kindness when they see another child being bullied.
- Notify school authorities or police if bullying escalates.
Could my child perhaps be a bully? No one wants to admit the possibility that their child is a bully. We have preconceived ideas of who bullies are and what their parents must be like. The bullied child is not the only victim. Most children that become bullies do so because of some underlying problem that they are unable to cope with in any other way. This may be from a myriad of causes: the divorce of their parents, the loss of a sibling or the feeling that they are somehow not “good enough.” All of these can harm the developing psyche of a young child to the point that the only way that the child feels good about themselves is to feel that they are exerting a measure of control over someone else. It is easier to see the bullied child in front of you as the victim and see the bully as someone aggressive and cruel, rather than realize that they, too, are a victim.
- Remain calm. You must begin by accepting that a bully is not necessarily the product of bad parenting. But it does mean that you will need to take steps to correct his or her behavior.
- There will be a time when you must speak to both the school officials and the parents of the bullied child.
- Immediately, calmly but firmly address the situation with your child.
- Listen to your child’s side of the story and then correct it. Make sure that they are aware that there are consequences for this kind of behavior.
- Listen to what others have to say about your child’s behavior.
- Try to understand what is behind your child’s behavior of bullying. Is your child’s behavior due to a disability? Sometimes children with limited social skills and/or behavioral skills will bully others. The issue of bullying will still need to be addressed but possibly in conjunction with a school program or therapy.
- Meet with school officials, your child, the bullied child and their parent(s) to apologize face-to-face.
- Ask for assistance from others. Continue to meet with your child’s teachers and/or bullied child’s parents to make sure progress is being made.
- Know that a behavioral change will not happen overnight. Be patient but consistent.