*Name changed for privacy
Teasing among kids is normal, but bullying takes conflict to a dangerous level and can sometimes result in extreme psychological and/or physical harm. In some ways, virtual learning gave our kids a much-needed break from bullying in school. But with the 24-7 nature of social media, our virtual world leaves ample opportunities for bullies to attack, whether or not school is in person.
Essex County second grader Kayla* was targeted by a bully during an innocent school Valentine’s Day exchange. As she opened her cards (which had been collected and distributed by the school), the 7-year-old’s heart sank. One pink, handwritten letter ended with the sinister message, “PS: I hope you die from COVID-19.” Shocked, Kayla’s mother immediately reached out to the school’s principal, but heard nothing back. It wasn’t until she submitted a formal letter to the school (with the help of an educator friend who “knew the lingo”) that she received a response. The school’s solution was to schedule a virtual meeting between the two children; the bully apologized and gave Kayla a new Valentine. Even so, the incident had far-reaching consequences for Kayla, who is nervous about being in school in the fall.
While bullying is nothing new, today’s kids are under constant attack due to the prevalence of social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok. “There is no break. There is no respite,” says West Orange marriage and family therapist Laurel Raissman. She advocates against bullying as part of Mallory’s Army. The organization was founded by Diane Grossman, whose daughter Mallory committed suicide in 2017—a result of relentless bullying at school and online. In Mallory’s case, the school’s actions made things worse, not better. “If bullying happens in school, it’s the school’s responsibility, but the schools sometimes turn a blind eye,” Raissman says. With so much at stake, what can we do to protect our kids from bullies? We got to the bottom of what defines bullying and sought advice from the experts.
WHAT IS BULLYING?
Bullying is defined as “unwanted aggressive behavior by another outh or group of youths… that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social or educational harm,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Steven Tobias, Psy.D., director of the Center for Child & Family Development in Morristown and co-author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child, says that “bullying is in the eye of the bullied,” and it should be more loosely defined. “If the target perceives it as being hurtful, then it’s bullying, and if a child is being hurt physically or emotionally, it needs to be taken very seriously,” says Tobias. “Don’t tell the kid to ignore the bully. That’s the worst advice a parent can give. One, it’s extremely difficult for the child to do, and two, it’s not really resolving the issue for the child and for the bully.”
“I have a 17-year-old client that has Asperger’s, and all through middle school there were these three boys who called him names every day,” says Raissman. “They called him retarded. They called him stupid. He’s very quiet. He’s also very smart, but it really took a toll on him. When you consistently go after someone who you perceive is weaker than you, you’re a bully.”
PAY ATTENTION TO THE SIGNS
Look out for any changes in behavior. “Kids who are bullied often withdraw socially,” says Tobias. They get embarrassed and they lose confidence in their ability to engage in social situations, or they start avoiding them because they’re worried the bully is going to be there,” he says.
“First of all, they don’t want to go to school,” says Raissman. “They have all kinds of reasons. They have a stomachache; they have a headache. You have to really take every single clue and be very hyper aware,” she says.
Don’t be afraid to do a bit of detective work. Unexplained injuries are an obvious sign, but be aware of changes in sleep, heightened anxiety, academic difficulties and eating problems (eating less or eating more), which Tobias says are indicators a child is going through a stressor like bullying.
TALK TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT BULLYING
Be proactive by having a discussion with your child about bullying, both from the perspective of the target and the bully, before an incident occurs. “The worst time to talk about a problem is during the problem, so if your child is already being bullied, they are less likely to come and talk to you,” Tobias says. “A lot of times, kids think that they should handle it on their own or they will internalize it, thinking ‘there’s something wrong with me and that’s why I’m being treated this way.’” Parents should ask their kids, “What is bullying? Have you ever seen anybody being bullied? Have you bullied anybody?” says Raissman. She believes bullying should be a part of every school’s curriculum and should include what bullying is and why people bully. “You have to give children a forum to have their voices heard,” she says.
If your child tells you they’re being bullied, provide reassurance that you’ll handle the situation together in a way they’re comfortable with. “A lot of times kids are resistant to talking to their parents about it because they’re afraid the bully is going to find out and they’re just going to be targeted even more—it’s very important to partner with the school in a way that’s not going to make your child feel worse,” Tobias says.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR CHILD IS BULLIED
In addition to providing emotional support to your child, problem-solve together about how to deal with the situation rather than telling them what to do. “If somebody gives you good advice, but you just can’t follow it, it doesn’t help,” says Tobias. “If anything, it often makes you feel worse. Problem solving needs to be with the child, not for the child.” Make sure not to downplay bullying with your child. “Don’t ever say: ‘This is not a big deal’; ‘Everybody gets bullied’; ‘Toughen up’ (or any of those standard lines),” adds Raissman. “Bullying is not funny.”
It’s also extremely important for your child’s school to be aware of what’s going on. “If it’s happening in school, it’s their responsibility to do something about it, and it’s likely that your child is not the only one being bullied; they can investigate if other kids are being targeted as well,” says Tobias. Not only is it important for the school to address what’s happening to the target, it’s important they work with the bully too. “There’s something going on with the kid who picks on other kids,” adds Tobias. “Sometimes the bully is being bullied by others. Sometimes there’s a stressor going on in that child’s life, whether it’s at home, whether it’s academic difficulties or the kid’s depressed. It’s important that we see the bully also as experiencing some kind of psychological difficulty.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to bullying, and sometimes you have to get creative. Maybe that means the child hanging out near teachers so they become aware of the bullying without the child having to report it, or hanging out with friends so they can back the child up. Most of all, it’s vital that parents and schools follow up, asking the child if the problem is resolved and how things are going. “Sometimes things work for a while and then stop working,” admits Tobias. “Sometimes if bullies are held accountable, then they lay low for a while before they resume it, so follow up in terms of what’s going on—look for opportunities to give the kid time and space to share things.”
If your child is the target of a bully and their school is not taking action, visit stopbullying.gov for help.
Try These Tips If Your Child Is the Bully:
• Don’t downplay the situation. If you find out your child is bullying other kids, it’s important to address it with school counselors and communicate with other parents.
• Be empathetic as a parent. Modeling is the best way for a desired behavior to resonate with our children, and caring about the feelings of others is an important quality.
• Talk to your child about what’s going on in their life—maybe they’re being bullied at school or at home themselves and acting out the same behavior as a result.
• Meet with your child’s teacher to gain their perspective, then work as a team to find as a solution. Most importantly, let your child know you’re in it together and you’ll help them work things out.
• Seek counseling and/or behavior modification to help your child become more empathetic if they continue to bully.
Heidi L. Borst is a mother, writer and nutrition coach based in Wilmington, NC.