Helping Parents & Kids Face the Challenges of Bullying
Stacey J. Drubner, JD, LICSW, MPH
EAP Ask the Expert – Joyce Velt, LICSW, Program Director, McLean SouthEast – Oak Street Adolescent Inpatient Program
Bullying (defined as repeated intentional physical or verbal attacks) is a challenging issue for parents and kids. Studies show that in-person bullying (mostly occurring in school) is at about 22% across the board. The overall incidence of bullying has increased due to online opportunities, which are accessible 24/7. According to a 2022 Pew Research Survey, nearly half of U.S. teens report experiencing cyberbullying such as:
- Name-calling – 32%
- False rumors spread online – 22%
- Receiving unsolicited explicit images – 17%
Bullying can have significant impacts on well-being but addressing it can be complicated:
- It’s not always obvious that it’s happening because some kids don’t disclose, due to stigma or shame
- Many incidents occur online, out of the view of adults
- Even with awareness, sometimes there is not a clear path for resolution
In this month’s article, our expert, Joyce Velt, LICSW, from McLean Hospital, offers some tools to guide parents and help children thrive. Combining her input with your own expertise on your child can help to prevent and limit the impacts of bullying.
Tips for Preventing Bullying
Educate kids about healthy relationships
The earlier you establish a blueprint for how to interact with others, the better. Teach kids how to:
- Manage emotions
- Treat others
- Tolerate differences
- Consider how someone might feel if they are bullied or mocked
- Take time off screens so they can learn to interact with people in real life and read social cues and body language
- Have self-compassion and self-validation
- Avoid perceiving themselves as victims and being overly negative
- Take responsibility for their behavior and reactions
Model the behavior you want kids to incorporate
Kids exposed to adults who bully or are disrespectful to other adults or children may get the message that it’s OK to incorporate the same behavior. A reasonable approach is to:
- Teach (and show) them that engaging in violence or mocking someone is not kind, or an acceptable way to gain power, resolve conflict or express disagreement
- Defend someone who is being treated unfairly by doing it in a productive, respectful manner
- Avoid using guilt or unnecessary criticism
Establish an “open-door policy” for communication
The best way to help your kids with issues relating to bullying (or anything else) is to have a routine for communicating openly and honestly in place all the time. Build a foundation by engaging in regular conversations about how things are going, even in the absence of an issue.
Let kids know that they can always come to you to discuss concerns or seek help. Offer judgment-free guidance. Some kids may turn to bullying because they are unable to express themselves otherwise.
Stay active with schools and advocate for anti-bullying policies
Much of the in-person bullying occurs at school so it’s important for educators to set the tone and have structures in place to prevent and address bullying. Learn about what your child’s school is/isn’t doing to create an environment of safety. Do they:
- Make it clear that they don’t tolerate cruel behavior of any kind?
- Have a system for responding to bullying?
- Provide staff training on bullying?
- Communicate goals for helping children to understand what’s acceptable and how to practice positive behavior and fairness?
- Offer social and emotional learning as part of the regular curriculum?
- Have clear channels to access help?
If you decide to speak with school representatives, try to engage in a way that sets a good example for your child. Be calm and assertive, rather than aggressive. Being disrespectful can complicate the situation.
Expose kids to individuals who are likely to offer on-point messaging
Turn to positive role models (celebrities, athletes, people they look up to) to communicate about the damaging effects of bullying and what it means to be a good citizen, classmate, and friend. One helpful resource is Boston versus Bullying, which uses the Boston sports community to provide education on bullying.
Recognizing that Bullying might be an Issue
Since kids may not disclose that they are being bullied, you may need to be on the look-out for potential warning signs. The things mentioned below could also be indicative of other issues, such as anxiety, depression or substance use problems. It’s best to explore any concerns you might have.
- Depression symptoms – persistent feelings of hopeless, loss of interest
- Exhibiting low self-esteem
- Change in demeanor
- Self-destructive or risky behavior
- Unexplained somatic symptoms – headaches or stomach issues
- Sleep or appetite issues
- Avoidance – refusing to participate in school, regular activities or time with friends
- Atypical issues with school performance
- Unexplained injuries with vague reasons for cause
- Joyce suggests that parents be alert for kids being ostracized (left out) as this is often a gateway to full force bullying
Responding to Bullying
How, when and if you intervene will depend on your child and the details of the situation.
Regardless of the role your child plays in a bullying scenario, Joyce suggests encouraging kids to make their own decisions and practice problem-solving. Offer guidance if asked. Give kids an opportunity to build resilience and confidence. Parental intervention is advised and necessary in circumstances of significant risk to your child’s wellbeing.
For the Bullied
Some kids may be reluctant to acknowledge they are being bullied because they are ashamed or want to work things out themselves. Don’t force the issue but rely on regular check-ins to get a pulse on how your child is doing. In the absence of safety concerns, take their lead.
If you are aware that your child is being bullied, here are some suggestions for how to help:
- Ask about how the experience is affecting them
- Ask them what kind of help they want
– Do they want advice?
– Offer for them to check back in if different help (such as talking to the school) is needed later
- Encourage them to tell a trusted adult if things get too hard to handle on their own
- Ask about coping strategies and support that has been successful
- Reassure them that this treatment is not about their deficits, but rather those of the bully
- Let them know that its OK to be unsure about how to proceed and that some situations don’t have simple solutions
- Communicate that it’s “Ok not to be OK” and that repetitive unkind behavior can have multiple impacts
– Validate their reactions and emotions
- Share your own experiences with this type of thing if they seem receptive to this
- Have them consider not engaging the bully
– Reacting may provoke more abusive behavior
- In the case of a one-sided bullying scenario, avoid bringing the kids together. Mediation or conflict negotiation is not effective and can actually be traumatizing to the bullied kid
- If they seem able to manage the situation and are not affected, tell them you appreciate their confiding in you, and would like to check in about the situation periodically
- Let your child know it’s going to be addressed if that’s what they want
- Generally, hold off on talking to the other child’s parents, unless it’s a family friend
- Before directly intervening in any situation, consider how this might impact your child
– Could this lead to more mocking or bullying?
For the Bully
Nobody is happy about their child harming another child, but Joyce cautions against jumping to conclusions or shaming kids. This approach may not help you understand the root cause of the problem or lead to a positive resolution. Bullying a bully reinforces unhealthy interpersonal interactions.
- Discuss the accusations and facts but provide an opportunity to hear their perspective
- Try to determine what is driving their behavior
- Give you child the benefit of the doubt, especially if the behavior is new or out of character
- Help them understand that even things that are intended to be “a joke” can be hurtful and cause suffering
- Ask them to put themselves in the place of the other kid. How would they feel if roles were reversed?
- Communicate that you know this is not the person they want to be
- Stay calm, even if your child gets confrontational
- Get the message across that you want to support them, but that bullying is not OK
We all hope to have kids who at a minimum understand that unkind behavior and hurting others is wrong. However taking the next step – intervening or defending someone is not always easy, even for adults. Kids may fear that they will be bullied or socially ostracized if they step in to help. Witnessing bullying can be stressful , and the bystander may experience many of the same symptoms that the bullied child manifests. Joyce recommends that you:
- Encourage your child to be a good friend and offer support to anyone being treated unfairly
- Help them understand that it’s wrong and unkind to participate in hurting others
- Let it be their choice to intervene if they feel safe and comfortable doing so
- Suggest that it might be easier to get involved if others join with them
- Remind them that they always have the option to speak with a trusted adult
Cyberbullying takes place online through platforms such as texting, social media, and gaming. This has the potential to be particularly damaging because it is accessible 24/7, can reach multiple people at once and can often work via anonymous or fraudulent channels. It’s important for kids to understand how to use the internet safely and recognize that even presumed temporary content is in fact, not temporary. Bullying or inappropriate behavior can impact life outside of the internet for years to come. Consider:
- Modeling the online behavior you want to see in your kids
- Keeping up to date on digital platforms and opportunities for bullying
- Being knowledgeable about and informing kids about reporting cyberbullying
- Teaching kids how to evaluate information for validity and help them to grasp the concept that not everything is real
–What you see is not necessarily what you get
– People may not admit that they are not always perfect, happy or beautiful
- Helping kids to have healthy boundaries with social media
Situations involving interactions with kids can be complicated, and finding the “right” response may not be so clear. Whether your child is the bully, the target of bullying or the bystander, always consider reaching out to a professional for guidance and parenting support.
- Stopbullying.Gov – Cyberbullying
- Suicide Support around Social Media
- EAP Teen Suicide Resources
Help from the EAP
The EAP offers free and confidential services for employees and immediate household family members. EAP records are separate from medical and HR records. Contact the EAP at 866-724-4327 or request an appointment via our online form for confidential assistance. In-person appointments are available at the following locations. Phone or Video (Zoom) appointments are available from all locations.