Bullying: How it happens and what you can do. Insight from a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.
4 MINUTE READ
Preparation is key – and strategies change as your child gets older
Once seen as an unpleasant feature of childhood – “they’re just being kids” – bullying is now recognized as a serious problem that can have devastating consequences. It can occur at any phase of your child’s life, from pre-school up through high school and beyond.
Bullying is repeated physical, verbal, and/or social aggression that intentionally causes harm to someone who is perceived to be vulnerable. We asked child and adolescent psychiatrist Mona Potter, MD, to help us better understand this age-old phenomenon – and to give us tips that parents can use to address it.
"While bullying historically was viewed as an interaction between the bully and the victim, our thinking has evolved," says Dr. Potter. Current models that look at bullying consider not only the roles of the bully and the victim, but also the bystanders and the environments (e.g., school, home). Dr. Potter emphasized that interventions across all four roles are important when preventing and responding to bullying.
For the bully:
Make it clear that their behavior is bullying behavior and is not acceptable.
Hold them accountable for their actions and provide clear and consistent consequences for bullying behavior. Be sure to follow through and show that the behavior will not be tolerated.
Try to understand the function of the behavior. Many (but not all) bullies have their own challenges that they have not figured out how to manage effectively.
Build on the child’s strengths; encourage them to use their power for good rather than intimidation and harm.
For the victim:
- If they’re willing to talk, listen to their concerns and experience.
- Make sure they know what bullying is and that it is not ok. Help them understand that bullies often have their own issues that lead them to bully (it's not just about the victim).
- Ensure the child has the support and skills to manage bullying
- Which adults do they feel comfortable asking for help?
- What can they say to the bully? How can they be assertive (“what you’re doing is not ok!”) and understand that bullies are often reinforced when a victim acts helpless or intimidated? Practicing with trusted adults can help.
- Identify peers that can help them feel good about themselves. Can they walk away from a bully and toward more welcoming, kind peers? Can they find these friends during unstructured times, since bullies are less likely to pick on a child in a group?
- How are they managing their own thoughts and feelings related to the bullying (and more broadly)? Help them catch negative thoughts and challenge them – for instance, rather than "I’m super awkward, so it makes sense that X makes fun of me," embrace the positive: "I’m a really good friend and care about people’s feelings. Nobody should treat other people like X does.”)
For the bystander:
- They can start by checking in with themselves - “how would I feel if I were in the victim’s position. Is this behavior ok?” They can look around and check the reaction of others as well.
- If they do not feel comfortable or safe intervening, then they should walk away - do not give the bully an audience. Seek help.
- If they feel able (and this can be a good one to practice):
- Speak up and let the bully know their behavior is not okay.
- Try to distract the bully or change the interactions.
- Let the victim know that they have support by demonstrating kind behavior.
For the system:
- Most bullying occurs during unstructured time (e.g., recess, lunch, bathroom breaks, hallways, school bus). How does the school create a culture of kindness and meaningful adult supervision?
- What is the school’s policy on bullying - are there clear rules and expectations, and how do they talk with students and staff about it?
- Is the process for responding to bullying clear and consistent at the school?
- How is the school incorporating feedback from students, families, and staff when bullying incidents occur so that they can continue to learn and improve their process?
- Family meals (at least 3-4 per week) have demonstrated value on multiple fronts, including protection from bullying harms.
- It’s not easy, but parents can supervise use of social media and texting, particularly for kids who are at risk.
- Parents also need to be aware of the behavior they’re modeling at home. Children learn to treat others respectfully – or not – based on the examples they see in their own family. “If their home life is very confrontational, and they feel powerless, they may be less likely to recognize bullying behavior in their peers,” says Dr. Potter, “and more likely to tolerate it.”
- One or two positive adults in a child’s life can make a huge impact. These adults can be outside of the home - sports, arts, STEM, religious gatherings, etc.
While it's possible to talk about bullying in broad terms, there is a difference between bullying among elementary-school children and bullying among teens. Young children tend to trust parents and other adults to be their protectors, while teenagers are striving to be self-sufficient.
Tips for parents of young children:
- It's more about preparing your child than protecting them. It can be tempting as a parent to swoop in and “fix” the situation for your child. But how will they manage if they find themselves in a similar situation in the future?
- Changes in behavior can indicate that something is wrong. A child may go to the school nurse complaining of stomach aches or headaches. They may simply say "I don't want to go to school today," or they may be reluctant to attend a fun event, like a birthday party.
- Picking friends is actually a life skill. It may be that they are just not recognizing who is really a friend, and who is unkind. Ask them whether they are surrounding themselves with classmates who make them feel good about themselves, or not.
Tips for parents of teens:
- Reluctance to talk about bullying is natural, because withdrawing from parents is natural. They're getting ready to leave home, which we expect them to do. Part of that process is looking to peers or themselves, rather than their parents, for support.
- Confidence is the best defense. If you think your teen is being bullied, you might want to swoop in and make it stop, but that's not likely to help as you would hope. What you can do is help your child to feel confident. Help them feel they can assert themselves.
- Mindfulness can be incredibly powerful. Your child can become purposeful about where they put their attention. If a kid says super mean things, is that really worth paying attention to? Your teen can choose to focus on things that are important or meaningful, rather than what a bully says.
Being bullied can affect your child’s mental and emotional health, and feelings of persecution or powerlessness can set the stage for more serious problems, including substance abuse or self-harm. Horizon® offers a range of behavioral health services. If you’re concerned about how your child is responding to a bullying situation, you can find professional help on Horizon’s Behavioral Health Resources page, or call 1-800-626-2212 (TTY 711).