Updated July 10, 2015.
By Olivia Smith
Bullying comes in many forms — from taunting on the playground to teasing via text message, and from violence in school hallways to threats on Facebook. If your child is being bullied, they’re not alone; nearly 30% of all school-aged children experience bullying. Bullying can make life extremely difficult for your child at any age and, over time, it can take a toll on their mental and physical health. Perhaps most disturbingly, there appears to be a link between being bullied and a higher risk of suicidal thoughts or actions in teens. Does this mean that bullying causes suicidal behavior? Absolutely not. But the observed link between bullying and suicide is just another reason to take bullying very seriously. As a parent, it’s important that you’re able to recognize the warning signs of bullying — and learn what you can do to help.
Bullying is more than your child having the occasional bad day, argument or fight at school; it’s suffering deliberate, frequent harassment, often repeated over and over again for a long period of time. Bullying can be verbal (teasing, taunting or threatening), social (excluding someone, spreading rumors or embarrassing someone in public) or physical (hitting, kicking, pushing or breaking someone’s belongings).
And bullying doesn’t just occur face to face — it also occurs in cyberspace. Through mean text messages, hurtful emails or snide comments on Facebook, bullies can use technology to further target their victims.
There’s no single risk factor that makes a child more likely to be bullied — it can happen at any age, both at school or away from school, to boys and girls of all backgrounds and personality types. However, there are some factors that might put your child at increased risk for being bullied, including if your child:
Bullying can have significant short and long-term effects on your child — both physically and mentally. In the short-term, bullying can may cause your child to feel depressed, anxious or lonely. If the bullying is physical, your child may be injured. Bullying can also affect your child’s grades or performance in class. In some cases, physiological issues from bullying can contribute to suicidal tendencies. Even after the bullying stops, the effects may linger; children who are bullied often carry psychological issues into adulthood, including depression, anger, anxiety and panic disorders.
It may be difficult for a child who's being bullied to speak up — they may be embarrassed or ashamed, afraid or worried that the situation will get worse if they say something. This makes it especially important for parents to be able to spot any warning signs that their child is being bullied.
“The key is looking for a change in behavior that may indicate a social issue is causing the child some pain,” says Joel Haber, PhD, a clinical psychologist and national expert on bullying prevention and the author of Bullyproof Your Child For Life.
Signs that your child is being bullied may include:
The best way to spot any potential signs of bullying is to be involved in your child’s life. Communicate with them frequently and listen to what they have to say. Ask about their daily routines, like who they sit with at lunch and who they play with at recess. Then get specific when discussing bullies: Do they ever see kids getting picked on or left out at school and does this ever happen to them? Let them know they can always talk to you about an issue they’re having with their peers.
If you find out that your child is being bullied, it’s important to take the problem seriously — don’t laugh it off, dismiss it or blame your child. It’s also crucial that you remain calm and try to keep your emotions in check — remember, it can be extremely difficult for your child to talk about bullying and they may be very sensitive about the situation. Work with your child to find non-violent ways to deal with their specific problem.
“We try to tell parents to brainstorm solutions with their child and see if their child can handle a situation first because, if they can develop successful skills in dealing with it, it can build resilience,” Haber says.
Try role-playing different ways to respond to bullying behavior with your child — including walking away, sticking with a group of friends, avoiding the bully, telling an adult or using humor to defuse the situation.
If cyber-bulling is occurring, develop a routine that allows you to be more aware of the websites that your child is visiting, and make sure they understand that what they post on the internet is public.
In addition, it’s important for parents to develop and maintain strong communication with their child’s teachers and supervisors — they’re most often the adults around when the bullying is occurring. Be sure to document each incident involving your child so that you can approach the school with the facts. Work with your child’s teachers, principals and guidance counselors to develop a plan that will keep your child safe.
Encourage your child to try new activities, or to get more involved with an activity they excel at. This will not only help them expand their social circle and make new friends, but can also provide a self-esteem boost. Remember, there are support groups, counselors and mental health professionals available for your child to talk to if they need it. Stay involved, and check in with your child about the situation frequently — that way, you can continue to offer support as needed.
Published April 15, 2013.
Olivia Smith is a producer for Al Jazeera Network. She is also a contributor to health and business websites. She has held a CNN Fellowship and a German-American Fulbright grant. She earned her master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.