You get the kids back to school, settle into a routine and then the phone rings. A phone call from the school counselor with the news that your child is a bully.
What do you do? How do you handle the news you never wanted to hear? Dr. Kathleen Young, a psychologist with Novant Health Family Medicine Wilmington sat down with us to talk about this touchy subject that can present in many different ways in school students.
Dr. Young, most parents worry that their child will be bullied, not the other way around. To hear that your child is the bully must be disconcerting, or even shocking. What are some signs that we can look for to know if this is happening?
Although learning this information may come out of the blue, there can be some signs at home that might indicate a greater likelihood of bullying behavior, such as increased aggressive behaviors at home, or having unexplained new belongings or extra money. Children who have friends that are known to bully others and are concerned with reputation or popularity may be more likely to bully.
Sometimes kids may start bullying behaviors if they experience disruption or change in their home environment, leading to behavior changes at school.
Any discussion about your child's health starts with a pediatrician.
How can we intervene at home?
Having good communication in the home is a great first step. You can talk to your children about bullying, and make sure to say that bullying is unacceptable. If you are concerned about bullying behavior, don’t ignore it. It also may be helpful to reach out to your school to learn more about what is going on and get support.
Children who participate in bullying behavior may also benefit from being connected with a counselor or behavioral health therapist to allow them to talk about things that could be contributing to the behavior and learn how to use healthy coping strategies.
Should parents feel guilty for having a child who’s been caught bullying?
Realizing that your child may be bullying others can be a difficult thing to consider and come to terms with. With that being said, focusing on things like guilt or blame are not helpful for the child or for the adults caring them. Taking steps to help your child change their behavior can go a long way to help everyone in the family feel better.
Let’s break this down further. What exactly is bullying?
Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, and it can present in a lot of different forms. It can be physical, but it can also be emotional or social. Certain children may be at higher risk for being bullied. If the child is perceived as being different in any way, maybe their appearance, behavior or social situation, they may be more at risk for being the target of bullying.
At what point should we consider therapy for our child – whether they are the bully or the victim?
I think there are a lot of factors that go into play as far as intervention for children who are either the perpetrators or the victims of bullying, because everybody is different and has had different experiences.
If a child's performance in school is affected or if you hear things that are concerning about serious changes in mood or anxiety, those might be clues to reach out for additional support. In some serious instances, children may have thoughts of suicide or self-harm. That's something I've unfortunately seen, and certainly if you hear anything like that you want to make sure to intervene immediately, so that you can have the child get the help that they need as soon as possible.
You’ve said about 20% of children may become the victims of bullying. How can we recognize the signs?
Things that someone might notice if their child is being bullied include physical symptoms, like stomachaches or headaches, or needing to come home from school early. Maybe there are unexplained bruises or marks that can come from physical aggression.
If a child is initially eager to go to school and then they stop wanting to go, that may be a sign as well. Also, if a child comes home hungry and needs to eat immediately, it may mean that they're not able to get food or someone's taking their food from them. Those are a few of the signs, as well as sadness and anxiety and withdrawing emotionally and socially.
What do we do if our child is being bullied?
The first thing I would suggest is to try to see if you can get the child to talk about it, which can be really difficult. There can be a lot of shame that's associated with being bullied, as well as fear that something negative might come from it if they talk about it. With that being said, sometimes people think that children should be able to work these things out on their own. Bullying is something that is a repeated behavior, a form of aggression, so it's not something that children should be expected to handle on their own.
I would encourage adults who notice signs of bullying to be able to find ways to intervene. Certainly, if you are going to intervene and talk to the child and others about the situation, you want to make sure that this is done in a way that respects the privacy and confidentiality of the people involved in order to make the situation as safe as possible for everybody.
Do you think bullying has gotten worse since the use of technology?
It's interesting, because obviously technology and social media provide a new venue for bullying and cyberbullying, and this is a topic that comes up a lot these days. Some of the statistics that I've seen actually indicate that rates of bullying have maintained the same or maybe even decreased slightly. Despite the availability of digital means, school grounds continue to be a primary site for bullying.
Is there anything that parents can tell their kids going into a new school year to handle bullies?
Yes, I think in general, having a good relationship with your child and being able to have open communication is really important. This opens the doorway for them to be able to talk about difficult things. I would say the most important thing is to offer as safe as an environment as possible at home so that a child feels comfortable being able to talk about the things that bother them.