Perhaps in part due to the sometimes tragic consequences, bullying is a hot topic these days. We often hear about bullying on the news.
If your child is truly the victim of bullying, you will observe a few telltale signs that will be discussed in this article. It is also important, though, that we know what bullying is not. Some kids just aren’t that nice, but they are not necessarily bullies.
First, with bullying, a power difference exists between the bully and the victim. A child who is larger, older, or much more popular would likely be in a power position.
Second, bullying is ‘targeted.’ Targeted acts of bullying are repeated and often relentless. This behavior is different from peer conflict. Peer conflict is often mistaken for bullying.
In peer conflict, the children may alternate between being friends and enemies. These ‘frenimies’ are not bullies. A true ‘bully’ would not be someone your child would want to hang around with; rather, your child would go to great lengths to avoid that person.
Lastly, a bully intends to do harm to the victim, by way of intimidation or harassment, with words or actions. This intention is different than a child who is just not very nice.
A ‘mean kid’ is not a bully if he or she is just generally rude to everyone, with no true pattern of who is the unlucky customer on a given day. These mean kids are somewhat indiscriminate and do not truly have an intended victim.
What do challenges with Bullying look like?
- Reporting that he is being picked on at school?
- Feeling depressed?
- Feeling lonely?
- Feeling afraid to go to school?
- Withdrawing from activities and clubs?
- Talking about an ‘enemy’ who he tries to avoid?
- Coming home in tears over the same ‘mean girl?’
- Saying that he is afraid of another child?
- Going to great lengths to avoid another child?
Why is Bullying happening?
If your child is being bullied, a few more obvious signals can be observed.
- Avoidance: your child may start avoiding situations in which he or she may run into that person. If your child loved Girl Scouts and suddenly wants to drop out, this behavior could be a sign of trouble.
- Anxiety: Another possible sign of bullying is a sudden increase in anxiety in situations in which the bully is present. For example, your child may become very nervous when walking into the classroom or into the lunchroom for fear of running into the bully, or your child may be having nightmares, panic attacks, or intensely nervous habits. Such nervous habits might include chewing a hole in clothing, licking lips, pacing non-stop, or nail biting. A very scared child may wet his pants, hide, or refuse to talk.
The most concerning type of bullying is when these signs are not so evident. Sometimes, your child may simply become sad and withdrawn. In this case, parents will need to start doing some detective work to understand the problem. If this sadness and withdrawal persists for more than a couple of weeks, it is well advised to get professional help.
Girl bullying tends to be more relational, whereas boy bullying tends to be more physical. Relational bullying is tricky to uncover because it can be very difficult to tease apart from peer conflict. One potential way to tell these apart is by the general nature of the relationship.
If your daughter reports one day that this girl is a friend and then the next week she is a bully, it is probably peer conflict, rather than bullying.
Bullying will result in more extreme feelings of fear and shame, not simply in anger and tears that might be the consequence of relationship issues or peer conflict.
A final consideration in peer conflict as opposed to bullying is the intent behind the behavior. In peer conflict, the ‘perpetrator’ of unkind behavior generally is trying to gain social status, get approval from peers, or respond to any perceived wrongdoing on the part of the other child. In bullying, the intention is to intimidate, harass, and humiliate another person. These types of relationships look very different. In a school building, peer conflict happens every day. True acts of targeted bullying are not nearly as commonplace.
How can I manage Bullying at home?
The most significant concern for bullying is if your child suddenly withdraws from social interaction or from activities he or she previously enjoyed.
Bullying may carry with it a sense of shame, as your child begins to believe the unpleasant comments the bully has made about him or her. If your child is feeling shame, experiencing withdrawal, and/or talking about death, a serious mental health emergency exists. Please refer to the Depression and Suicide article for resources. Get help now and don’t delay. Parents or children can call Safe 2 Tell: (877) 542-7233 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
If your child is questioning gender identity or sexual orientation, the likelihood and danger of bullying is increased dramatically.
Similarly, children with disabilities, particularly autism, are more vulnerable to bullying. Children on the autism spectrum tend to be more gullible and to struggle to assess the intentions of others, rendering them the more likely victims of harsh treatment from peers.
A sudden drop in school performance or attendance is another major sign that bullying is getting in the way of your child’s functioning and happiness. In any of these scenarios, bullying should be dealt with immediately. Your child may need help from a psychologist, school professional or both.
In terms of what to do for more minor types of bullying issues that are not necessarily interfering with daily functioning, here are a few basic guidelines.
Do not tell your child to ignore the bully. Unfortunately, although this advice is offered up by many well-meaning adults, the research does not support ignoring as a strategy. Rather, teaching your child to use assertive language to stand up to the bully tends to yield the best results. If your child can gather together with peers and stand up to the bully together, this approach can be effective as well.
Go ahead and reach out to the classroom teacher and administration for support for your child. It is NOT recommended that the principal pull the bully and the victim into a meeting together. Your child should have a chance to voice his or her concerns privately. The bully should meet with administration separately, and generally disciplinary action is helpful to curb the cruel behaviors.
In a school building, it is important to be aware that the one- or two-day assemblies or what is sometimes aptly referred to as ‘Anti-Bullying in a Box’ programs have very poor efficacy in the research and are not recommended. The best way to fight bullying is through the fostering of caring communities.
Programs that teach social skills and conflict resolution tend to have good outcomes over the long term. Keep in mind that these programs are educational programs, and it tends to take many years before results are shown in terms of school-wide reduction in peer conflict and bullying. Evidence-based programs include Second Step, Collaborative Problem Solving (Ross Greene), Positive Action, and many programs from the Restorative Practices model.