Q: I think my child is being bullied at school. In the last couple of weeks, she’s started complaining about a particular girl, who, she says, makes fun of her appearance and tells others to not be her friend. I’m not sure how long it’s been going on, but, a few months ago, my daughter, who has always loved school, started faking stomach aches so she could stay home sick. She claims she’s fine, but I’m worried.
How can I help my daughter?
The good news is that she came to you to start the conversation
Only 20% to 30% of students who are bullied at school actually tell an adult that they’re being targeted, according to research cited by StopBullying.gov.
And a good number of children are bullied at school each year. Studies peg the total at between 25% and 30% of U.S. students. If the bullying is allowed to continue, those children can face lifelong impacts. Researchers say kids who are bullied are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety, complain more often about health issues and are more likely to do poorly in school.
It’s not always easy to identify the victim of bullying because so many don’t speak up, but red flags include school avoidance, headaches and stomach aches, sleeping issues and social isolation, according to the National Bullying Prevention Center.
If your child is exhibiting signs like these, it’s time to have an open discussion with them, writes Dr. Mark Welles, a pediatrician at Northwell Health’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center.
“Provide a safe space for your child to talk by using active listening skills. For example, saying, ‘I noticed you haven’t been making plans with your friends anymore, are you still hanging out with them?’ gives your child an opportunity to express themselves without feeling interrogated,” wrote Welles, who also is co-chairman of the Bullying Prevention Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, on Northwell Health’s website. “As intense as the situation feels, it’s essential to avoid assumptions and to listen to your child without judgment.”
What bullying at school is—and isn’t
As you have conversations with your child about what’s happening at school, Brad Weinstein, co-author of Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice, says it’s also important for parents to understand what bullying actually is.
It isn’t teasing over just a handful of days, said Weinstein, who also is chief innovation officer for BehaviorFlip. It’s sustained behavior over a period of time where there is a clear power imbalance between the victim and the aggressor.
“If one kid got a haircut and a kid made fun of them for three days, that would just be a kid being a jerk,” Weinstein said. “But if a kid continuously does it for weeks, that’s when I would consider it being bullying.”
Some kids may be more prone to becoming a victim. They include children whose peers consider them weak or different for some reason, according to StopBullying.gov. Kids with low self esteem or few friends can be targeted. So can children who others consider annoying or provoking.
But, in many cases, bullied kids have no obvious risk factors. Often, said Weinstein, the behavior has more to do with the bully.
“It’s typically because of a lack of confidence in the bully,” he said. “They don’t feel good about themselves, so they are going to make others feel bad.”
How to help a bullied child
If a bully is physically harming a child, parents should go straight to their student’s teacher or school administration, said Weinstein, a former teacher and principal. But if the bully is emotionally or verbally tormenting your child, parents should ask their kids to come up with a solution first.
Ask them, he said, “‘What do you think you can say next time this happens? What do you think might work to get this behavior to stop?’ A lot of times, kids don’t think about things in the moment, but they can come up with an idea.”
From there, parents can guide them toward a smart response. If a child proposes that they’ll start calling the bully names, don’t judge them. “When they say something that probably will not be effective, that’s when you prompt them,” he said.
Say something like, “If you do call them names, what do you think will happen next? … It’s all about having the kids come up with ways to problem solve and, if they can’t, prompting them into something that’s good,” he said. “When the kid takes ownership, they feel better about it and they feel more empowered.”
It can require a mindshift for parents to let their kids take the reins in a situation like this, but it’s important, he said. And, of course, if the bullying continues or escalates, parents will need to step in. But, often, he said, kids can come up with an answer.
“It’s very rare,” said Weinstein, “that a kid sticks to a bad plan.”