Bullying: what parents need to know and do

It’s easy to think of bullying as a normal part of childhood—and no big deal. After all, it’s been going on since time immemorial. The popular kids have always picked on the less popular kids. We’ve seen it at school, watched in on TV and in the movies, maybe even lived it ourselves.

So it’s easy to brush it off, to say “kids will be kids,” to tell our bullied kid to toughen up—and maybe even to be proud of our kids who bully because they are so dominant and popular.

But bullying is a big deal, not something to be brushed off. New technology has brought cyberbullying, which can be really dangerous in its anonymity and pervasiveness. Bullying does real harm.

Parents can play a crucial role—both in helping and making things worse.

In a great commentary in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Mark Schuster and Laura Bogart of Boston Children’s write about what we are learning about bullying. We know that kids who are bullied are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental and physical problems. Some even want to die—and some actually kill themselves.  But it’s not just short-term effects; bullying can lead to long-term mental and physical problems that extend long after the bullying itself has stopped. The bullies can have long-term problems too; they are more likely to have trouble with violence and other risky behaviors when they are older.

Children who are different in some way are more likely to be bullied. In one of the studies that Dr. Schuster comments on, almost two-thirds of overweight children reported being bullied at school, both by peers and by adults. In another study, a third of children with food allergies reported being bullied simply because of their food allergies. Children who are bullied for something that is part of their core identity—like being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender—are more likely to have more severe and long-term effects from bullying.

Parents can absolutely be part of the solution—but they can be part of the problem, too, says Dr. Schuster. Parents are the role models for their children; what they say and do matters. Here are some big “don’ts” for parents:

  • Don’t minimize or ignore bullying. Whether your child is the victim or the bully, you need to take it seriously.
  • Don’t bully your child yourself. Take a long, hard look at how you treat your child. There can be a fine line between “tough love” and bullying.  Think of how you would feel if your parent said the things you say (maybe they did—our parents are not always the best role models themselves).
  • Don’t use words that belittle or denigrate groups of people, like “sissy”. Not only do they feel bad, but your child may copy you and use them too.
  • Don’t bully other adults—be aware of how you treat people generally. As I’ve said in lots of blogs, kids pay way more attention to what we do than what we say.

Here’s some advice from Dr. Schuster on how parents can help:

  • Talk to your child about bullying. Send a clear message that everyone deserves to be treated well.
  • Be aware. Watch for signs that your child is either a victim or a bully.
  • If your child is at higher risk for being bullied, because of his weight, sexual orientation or anything else that makes him different, be extra aware. Talk with them more. Be in touch with teachers and other adults that see your child in other settings.
  • Take any bullying very seriously. Take action.
  • If your child is being bullied, or is at risk for bullying, help them find an activity where they can have a supportive peer group. This activity might be outside of school, like an art class or drama production or a swim team.
  • Make your house a safe haven from any kind of bullying.
  • Make sure your child really knows that you believe them to be worthy. Unconditional love is one of the best and most important gifts we can give our children—and it’s especially important when it comes to bullying.

For more information on bullying and what you can do, visit www.stopbullying.gov.