Your Kid Could Be a Victim of Bullies and Not Even Know It

Jeanne Sager

bullyMy daughter has been a victim of bullying.

That's bad enough.

But the hardest thing for me has been how to break the news -- to her.

Because when a kid says, "I'll be your best friend if you give me some of your Silly Bandz," my kind-hearted 5-year-old comes home to tell me, "I have a new best friend."

Deciding when to end your child's innocence and share the evils of the world with them is a tough road for parents, so The Stir checked in with Dr. Michael Morrow of the Nemours Health System for advice. 

Dr. Morrow is a Pediatric Psychology Fellow in the Division of Behavioral Health at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and an expert on bullying, and he told us how to break the news and how to help your kids deal.

It seems kids don't always realize they're being bullied; should parents step in and talk to them when they see something or let them hang on to their innocence?

In my clinical work with youth who are bullied, many view their bullies as friends. Because bullied children are often socially isolated, the bullies may be the only peers who pay attention to them. In this situation, parents should intervene by talking with their children about friendship and emphasize that true friendships are based on mutual respect.

Notably, friendships may play a protective role in shielding children from the negative effects of peer rejection and victimization; therefore, it's also important to provide them with ongoing opportunities to develop healthy relationships with peers. To facilitate this process, parents should look for social outlets where their children can show their talents and pursue their specific interests (e.g., in a club, group, or team). 

When does bullying typically start -- is there an age range?

Throughout early childhood (ages 1 to 4 years), aggressive behavior becomes increasingly common among children. Some research suggests that bullying emerges during preschool in children as young as 3 years.

However, it's questionable to label young children as bullies. Bullying is an intentional act aimed to harm another individual. During early childhood, children are still developing the capacity to predict how others think and feel. Therefore, they are unlikely to think about the possible effects of their aggression on others.

Nevertheless, young children's aggression has the potential to become bullying over time. Therefore, it's very important to prevent early aggression from becoming bullying later in childhood and beyond.

When should parents start talking to their kids about bullying? Should it be after they experience a bully or something beforehand to prepare them?

Parents should take a proactive approach and discuss bullying before an incident occurs. By discussing this issue ahead of time, parents can prepare their children to treat others with respect and respond assertively when confronted by peers.

To prepare children for these situations, it's often useful to discuss hypothetical social situations (e.g., being teased, getting hit, having your property stolen, or being excluded) and guide them in thinking about different ways to solve these problems.

Moreover, parents can even act out different social scenarios with their children to give them a chance to practice different ways to manage bullying and other challenging interactions with peers.    

What should parents say to their kids -- are there any big keywords we should be using?

In discussing bullying with children, parents can offer some basic background information. For instance, they can define bullying as intentional behavior that's aimed to hurt others and happens repeatedly over time.

Parents can also describe some different types of bullying behavior (e.g., verbal, physical, and social) and even share personal stories about their own experiences of bullying throughout childhood. In discussing this topic, it's very important for parents to emphasize that it isn't acceptable to bully others or to be bullied. With that said, it's also important to talk about ways to solve social problems without bullying others, along with ways to respond to bullying while it's happening and what to do afterward.

It's often useful to discuss different social situations with children and guide children in thinking about different ways to respond. There are also a number of books and websites designed for children and families to help them learn more about bullying. A list of resources can be found at the Health Library for the University of Minnesota's Children's Hospital.

In addition to providing children with some background information on bullying, it's critical for parents to take time to listen to their children's thoughts and feelings about their bullying experiences.

In order for parents to support their children with bullying, it's essential for them to understand the nature of their experiences (i.e., who, what, where, when) and how they think and feel about them. Therefore, parents should also make an effort to listen to their children. In doing so, it's important to practice active listening by allowing children to share their stories without interrupting or offering immediate advice.

It's worth noting that some children are highly reluctant to share their bullying experiences with others, even with close family members. In this case, it may be helpful to ask less direct questions (e.g., What's it like to be a student at your school?) or use media (e.g., books, songs, or movies) to facilitate conversation. When children refuse to share any information, it may be necessary to seek professional help from a mental health provider.

Should parents talk to the other child's parents or go straight to someone at the school? Is it purely situational or is one better than the other?

As a rule of thumb, it's often better to contact the school before speaking with the other child's parents. School officials can play an important intermediary role and reduce the likelihood that conflict emerges among the parents involved. However, there are exceptions.

For instance, if the parents have an existing and friendly relationship with the other family, it might make sense to contact them first. Nevertheless, it's still important to contact the school to ensure that school officials are aware of the situation and involved in developing and implementing a plan to keep the children safe.   

Are there any big mistakes parents typically make when talking to their kids about bullies?

When parents discover that their children are being or have been bullied, they often attempt to resolve the problem as quickly as possible (e.g., by meeting with school officials or telling their children what to do to manage bullies). However, in many cases of bullying, there is no quick fix.

Accordingly, I encourage parents to take time to talk with their children in order to learn as much as possible about their bullying experiences.

Moreover, I push parents to involve their children in the actual process of developing a plan to address the problem. Although bullying is a terrible experience, it's also an opportunity for children to learn how to go about handling difficult social situations. If given the opportunity, children can learn a number of important skills throughout this process.

It should also be mentioned that many children are reluctant to report bullying to the school or to have their parents report for them. Although it's important to validate children's feelings about this, it's critical to work with the school to develop a plan to keep them safe.

Have your kids been victimized by bullies? Did they know?


Image via trix0r/Flickr

Read More