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A Parent’s Guide on How to Deal with Bullies

From the playground to politics, it seems bullying exists everywhere these days. As adults, we’ve become somewhat numb to the deluge of disparaging comments we hear and see on the news or social media, but nothing can be as jarring as when you find out your child has become a target. Instead of enjoying childhood and teendom, your child is now a part of the one in five American students who are a victim of bullying.

Unfortunately, bullying isn’t something that will just magically go away or something your child can handle on their own. Even if you’re unsure whether your child is being bullied or not, your participation is crucial in helping your child navigate these difficult times.

Why do children bully others?

First to understand why children bully, it’s helpful to know what bullying is.

“Bullying is an intentional, aggressive and repeated behavior that creates a real or perceived imbalance of power or strength,” said Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Bullying can take lots of forms, from physical, verbal and emotional to even cyberbullying.”

When asked why children bully, Dr. Adelayo said oftentimes it’s a result of low self-esteem or learned behaviors. They may be lacking attention at home or even being bullied at home by an older sibling or parent.

“At earlier ages, say preschool to third grade, it’s just a bossy kid who may not realize how their behavior is affecting others or the child may be seeking attention, whether good or bad,” Dr. Adelayo said. “As you get to middle and high school ages, children are able to recognize social cues and how their behaviors affect others. The bullying behaviors become deliberate in an effort to exert power and control. Often they don’t even realize how wrong their behaviors are or how it makes others feel.”

What signs of bullying should I look out for?

Don’t be surprised if your child doesn’t come right out and let you know they’re being bullied. Kids often hide the fact that they’re being bullied. They may feel helpless or humiliated and don’t want anyone to know, or they may want to try and handle it on their own. Younger children especially, may not even realize they are being bullied.

“Elementary-aged kids are still learning how to make friends,” Dr. Adelayo said. “They may like being around the bully but just know sometimes this person really doesn’t make them feel good.”

Because children can be so good at masking their pain, it’s important to look for these red flags:

  • Unexplained injuries: Cuts, bruises and scratches
  • Physical symptoms: Frequent headaches or stomachaches, feeling sick or faking illness, difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Damaged property: Torn, damaged or missing pieces of clothing, books and other belongings
  • Changes to eating habits: Suddenly starts skipping meals or binge eating
  • Decline in academics: Difficulty focusing on schoolwork, loss of interest in school or not wanting to go to school and a sudden drop in grades
  • Vanishing friendships: A sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Behavioral changes: Withdrawals from activities they used to enjoy, decreased self-esteem, destructive behavior, self-harm or talk of suicide

“It’s important to note that while bullying can occur to anyone and for any reason, some groups, such as children who are LGBTQ+ and those who have certain disabilities and are socially isolated, may be at an increased risk of being bullied,” Dr. Adelayo said. “While this may not always be the reason why they are being targeted, it’s important to keep in mind when you’re looking for possible signs and causes of bullying.”

What can I do to help my child if they’re being bullied?

If you’ve determined your child is being mistreated by their peers, here are some steps you can take to help your child.

Listen and validate

Being a good, empathetic listener is an important part of your role as a parent. When your child opens up about what is occurring at school, listen intently and be supportive and avoid any emotional or knee-jerk reactions. Instead, ask questions to gather details and thank your child for having the courage to talk to you about what’s going on.

Don’t take matters into your own hands … yet

Most schools take bullying very seriously, but before you run out to tell the teacher or principal, ask if your child wants you to reach out to the school. They may fear retaliation or may want to talk to the school on their own. Follow their lead but remind them of the importance of letting someone know at the school, so it can be documented and addressed appropriately. If no progress is made, step in and let the appropriate people know at your child’s school.

Develop pro social skills

Discuss with your child ways they can appropriately respond the next time they encounter the bully. Whether that’s using their voice to say, “No” or “Stop,” walking away or finding a trusted adult who can help. Once you go over the skills, role play “what if” scenarios.

“It’s important for them to be able to stand up for themselves and not let someone make them feel a way they don’t want to feel,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Don’t let the bully get a rise out of them.”

Boost your child’s confidence

Encourage your child to engage in activities or social gatherings that boost your child’s self-esteem and well-being.

Talk to a behavioral health specialist

Contact a licensed behavioral health specialist if your child’s reactions become extreme or you’re struggling to get them to open up about what’s happening to them.

“Bullying can affect your child in a number of ways,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Even if they aren’t showing outward signs, never underestimate the power of bullying. Kids can take drastic measures without ever admitting to loved ones the hurt they are feeling.”

For additional support, Dr. Adelayo suggested the following resources for children and parents:

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