Bullying and Your Child
July 21, 2004, KidsHealth.org
Childhood should be a time filled with wonder and joy, but the reality for many kids is often much different. They're the victims of bullying at school or on neighborhood playgrounds. Children who are intimidated, threatened, or harmed by bullies often experience low self-esteem and depression, whereas those doing the bullying may go on to engage in more serious antisocial behaviors as adolescents and adults. Bullies often have been the victims of bullying or other mistreatment themselves.
But what is bullying, exactly? And what can you do about it?
Types of Bullying
Bullying behavior is not always easy to define. Where do you draw the line between good-natured ribbing and bullying? Hostility and aggression directed toward a victim who is physically or emotionally weaker than the bully are more obvious signs of bullying. The result of this behavior is pain and distress for the victim. Bullying behavior comes in various forms:
- Physical bullying is perhaps the most obvious form of intimidation and can consist of kicking, hitting, biting, pinching, hair pulling, or threatening such physical abuse.
- Verbal bullying often accompanies the physical behavior. This can include name calling, spreading rumors, and persistent teasing.
- Emotional intimidation is closely connected to these two types of bullying.
- A bully may deliberately exclude a child from a group activity such as a class party.
- Racist bullying can take many forms: making racial slurs, spray painting graffiti, mocking the victim's cultural traditions, and making offensive gestures.
- Sexual bullying is characterized by unwanted physical contact or abusive comments.
Why Some Kids Bully
There are many reasons why a child may become a bully. They may turn to this abusive behavior as a way of dealing with a difficult situation at home, such as a divorce. Some bullies have been victims of abuse themselves, either at home or as younger children. And just like their victims, bullies often have low self-esteem. Whatever the cause, bullies usually pick on others as a way of dealing with their own problems. Sometimes they pick on kids because they need a victim, someone who is weaker, to feel more important, powerful, or in control. They're often bigger or stronger than their victims and may use bullying as an attempt to achieve popularity and friends.
Bullies will often target someone who is different than others and focus on that attribute. Wearing glasses, having big ears, or being in a wheelchair are all differences that can be fodder for a bully's ridicule.
A child doesn't have to be physically different from other children to be bullied. Being anxious, insecure, or smarter or slower than their peers can also make some kids the target of bullying. The bully realizes that these children are unlikely to retaliate.
If Your Child Is Being Bullied
Do you suspect that your child is being bullied? Sometimes the effects of bullying aren't as obvious as a black eye. Other signs to look for include the sudden appearance of bruises, missing belongings, or the invention of mysterious illnesses or stomachaches to avoid going to school. Your child may be embarrassed or feel weak by admitting he's the victim of a bully.
To make it easier for your child to talk about it, consider asking some thoughtful questions. For example, you could ask what it's like walking to the bus stop or home from school. Often a child will unexpectedly change routines to avoid a bully. Or you could ask about what happens on the playground before or after school or during recess. You might also try asking if there are any bullies in the neighborhood who have threatened to hurt any kids your child knows. This might make it easier for your child to talk about bullies because he won't necessarily have to talk about his own experiences. It might also help your child realize that he's not alone.
If you learn that your child is the victim of a bully, your reaction is important. Remember that your child is the victim; you do not want to add to your child's burden with an angry or blaming response. Although it's understandable that hearing your child is being bullied would make you sad or upset, try not to let your child see that - he might interpret your sadness as disappointment in him.
Helping Your Child Stand up to a Bully
First, listen to your child. Just talking about the problem and knowing that you care can be helpful and comforting. Your child is likely to feel vulnerable at this point, so it's important that you let him know you're on his side and that you love him.
Talk to your child about why some people act like bullies. Remember that your child may feel guilty, that he is somehow to blame. Reassure your child that he did not cause the bullying. Explain that kids who bully are usually confused or unhappy.
How can your child handle a hostile confrontation with a bully? Getting angry or violent won't solve the problem; in fact, it's giving the bully exactly what he wants. And responding with physical aggression can put your child at risk. On the other hand, going along with everything the bully says is not a good way to handle the situation. Your child needs to regain his sense of dignity and recover his damaged self-esteem - agreeing to be a victim won't accomplish this.
Empower your child to act first. For example, suggest that your child look the bully in the eye and firmly say, "I don't like your teasing and I want you to stop right now." Your child should then walk away and ignore any further taunts from the bully. If your child fears physical harm, he should always try to find a teacher or move toward friends who can provide support.
Because bullies often target socially awkward children, you should encourage your child to develop more friendships. Suggest your child join social organizations, clubs, or teams. Encourage him to invite other kids over to play on a regular basis. Sometimes just being in a group with other kids can keep a child from being victimized.
In many cases, bullying won't require your involvement. Sometimes, though, the direct intervention of an adult is necessary, especially in cases of persistent bullying. If you fear that your child may be seriously harmed or suspect his emotional health may be suffering, it's important that you step in. That may mean walking to school with your child or talking to your child's teacher, school counselor, or principal about the problem. It may embarrass your child, but his safety should be everyone's primary concern.
If Your Child Is the Bully
If you learn that your child is a bully, try to stay calm. You may even feel a sense of disbelief, finding it impossible that your child would behave in such a way. Try not to become angry or defensive as this could make a bad situation even worse. Although it's unlikely that a child who bullies would confess his behaviors, ask your child to tell you exactly what he's been doing and ask your child why he thinks he bullies and what might help him stop. Because bullying often stems from unhappiness or insecurity, try to find out if something is troubling your child.
Helping Your Child Stop Bullying
You can help modify a bullying child's behavior by controlling your own aggression, along with the behavior of your children. If an older brother or sister frequently taunts, teases, or bullies your child, it's likely to damage that child's self-esteem and make him more likely to model that aggressive behavior outside the home by attacking other kids.
Set limits for your bullying child. Stop any show of aggression immediately and help your child find other, nonviolent ways of reacting to certain situations. Observe your child in one-on-one interactions and remember to praise your child for appropriate behaviors. Positive reinforcement can be more powerful than discipline.
Talking to your child's school staff may also help. Tell them your child is trying to change his behavior and ask how they can help. It may be helpful for you and your child to meet with an educational psychologist or other mental health professional.
Finally, set realistic goals for your child. Don't expect him to change immediately. As he learns to modify his behavior, it's important to assure your child that you still love him - it's his behavior that you don't like.
Helping your child cope with either being a bully or being a victim often requires outside assistance, such as from your child's school or the community. School is the most likely place for bullying to occur, so discuss your concerns with your child's teachers and counselor and ask what they can do to help. School personnel can be influential in helping a child modify his behavior. Take advantage of any psychological counseling services that may be offered at your child's school or in your community.