How to help your child if they’re being bullied

When your child is being bullied, for many parents, your first instinct may be to try to protect them. The situation may feel isolating, like it’s only happening to your child. But the reality is, they aren’t alone.

Bullying happens most often in grades 6 through 8, with about 28% of kids in those grades reporting being bullied at school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.1

But it’s not exclusive to middle schoolers: About 1 and 5 high school students report being bullied on school property, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).2 Bullying, if it’s not addressed, can lead to depression and anxiety in kids. And kids who are bullied may also let their grades slip and are more likely to drop out of school.3

Parents may play an important role, both in spotting bullying and preventing it. “We need all parents to talk about bullying, whether their child is the victim, the perpetuator or a bystander,” says Gail Saltz, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell Medicine Medical College and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeart. Here’s what parents need to know about bullying and how to help stop it.

What is bullying

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior. “It causes hurt, the degree of which can vary from victim to victim,” Dr. Saltz says. It can occur in kids as young as preschool (or even earlier) and continue up through high school.

For an incident to be classified as bullying, it must have 2 components:4

  1. An imbalance of power. Kids who bully use their power – whether it’s being physically stronger, spreading gossip or excluding someone from a group – to hurt another child.
  2. Repetition. It must have happened more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

There are 3 general types of bullying:4

  • Verbal bullying: This includes teasing, name-calling and threats.
  • Social bullying: A child may be left out, become the subject of rumors or be embarrassed in public.
  • Physical bullying: Physical aggression such as hitting, tripping or breaking someone else’s things. This is what we often think about when we hear the word bullying.

All 3 types have one thing in common: The experience may be damaging to the kid being bullied.

Why kids bully

There are several reasons why one child may bully another. Those can range from insecurity to family life. The most common drivers of bulling behavior include:

  • Fear. “If a child is different, if they have medical or psychological issues, for example, it may actually scare the other child or make them uncomfortable,” says David Tzall, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist in New York City. “When we don’t like something, we tend to reject it.”
  • Jealousy. If one child has something the other doesn’t, it can breed resentment. “We see it a lot of that in middle school, when girls bully other girls who sexually develop before them,” Tzall notes. “It’s a way to protect themselves. They’ll say they don’t want something the other child has, to make it look bad.”
  • Insecurity. If kids themselves have low self-esteem, they may bully others to make themselves feel more powerful.5
  • Family factors. Some kids who bully may come from families where bullying and aggression are the norm, Dr. Saltz says. As a result, they think it’s expected.5 “It’s normal for all people, especially kids, to have negative feelings like aggression toward others,” she says. “But it’s a parent’s job to socialize their children and tell them certain behaviors aren’t okay.”
  • Desire to elevate social status. Stature and power among students are often important to them, especially in middle and high school, Dr. Saltz notes. Some kids try to bring others down to boost their own popularity.5

How to protect your child

It's important to know the signs of bullying. Red flags such as depression and withdrawal are potential indicators that your child is being bullied, Tzall says. Others include:6

  • Injuries your child can’t explain
  • Lost personal items
  • Complaints of headaches or stomach aches
  • Skipping meals or coming home from school hungry because they didn’t eat lunch
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Falling grades
  • School avoidance
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide talk

If you notice any of these signs, talk to your child or teen immediately.

Address bullying right away

Gone are the days when parents encouraged kids to work it out, Tzall explains. Contact the school and report it. Don’t contact the other child’s parents, as it may make things worse. Also, keep in mind that each state has their own laws about bullying in schools that may limit what can be shared with you regarding the discipline of the other child.7

Talk to your child

Take the time to listen and really focus on them. Make clear to them that the bullying isn’t their fault. Ask them what would make them feel safe. It’s also a good idea to have them talk to a therapist.8

Come up with a game plan

You want to help your child figure out how to get through the situation if it happens again. It could be to seek help from an adult, or to tell the bully to leave them alone. There may be friends they can walk with to deter the bully. You want to give them tools to stay calm. If they get upset, it can encourage the bully to continue.8

Find other activities

Your child may want to isolate. But encourage them to do activities they may enjoy, such as joining a karate class or learning a new instrument. “You want them to get a sense of mastery and pride, and, hopefully, find a new peer group as well,” Tzall says. “The more you can get your child out and about and doing things that install good values, the more you can build their confidence.”

Teach your child to be an “upstander”

An upstander stands up for themselves and others being bullied. Research suggests that kids who act as upstanders report more optimism and self-esteem than kids who support the bully or stay silent.7 Even if your child is not being bullied, they may see it happening to someone else. Talk to them about how to handle the situation. If they are comfortable, they can step forward and support the target.7

Another way upstanders can help is by changing the subject or using humor to try to deflect the situation. They can encourage the victim to walk away and do something else.8 If they don’t feel comfortable speaking up, it’s important that they report the bullying to a trusted adult. That could be a parent, teacher or school administrator.8

The bottom line: The last thing any parent wants to hear is that their child is being bullied. Fortunately, all 50 states have anti-bullying laws, and many schools now have formal policies about bullying. If your child is being bullied and the school isn’t taking action, you may need to keep detailed documentation about the incidents and address it with the school principal, the school’s district office, or even your state’s Department of Education. Your child has a right to feel safe and protected at school.

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