HCN News & Notes

Are You Worried About Your Child Being Bullied in School?

SPRINGFIELD —  One out of every four kids will be bullied sometime during their adolescence, according to the American Justice Department. If your child is about to enter preschool or kindergarten this fall and may be exposed to bullying for the first time, will they recognize they are being bullied? What’s a parent to do?

“It is important that parents listen to their children when they say they are being bullied and make it clear to them that it is not their fault,” said Dr. Peter Thunfors of Baystate Behavioral Health – Child Psychiatry. “Parents can give some advice and coaching about how to handle bullying situations, but it is most important that they work collaboratively with the school to address the situation. We want it to be clear to the victim that the adults involved will be in charge of solving the problem and that this responsibility does not fall on the child’s shoulders.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived difference in power. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated over time.

“Parents and school staff can help younger children by clearly and simply defining bullying and explaining the differences between a bully, a victim, and a bystander. Children should be encouraged to seek help from a trusted adult when they experience bullying as a victim or bystander,” said Thunfors.

Bullying takes many forms, including physical bullying (the victim is touched or hit without consent, or property is destroyed), verbal bullying (the victim is called names and insulted), cyberbullying (the victim is targeted online, sometimes anonymously and other times by public humiliation), social bullying (the bully tries to destroy a victim’s reputation or relationship with another person or organization), and cyber harassment (when an adult bullies a child online). The effects of bullying can be long-lasting in some cases.

A study published online in 2014 by the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed that the impact of being bullied in childhood can persist through mid-life. The study noted that the harmful effects extend beyond psychological distress to lower levels of education, physical and cognitive health problems, and poor social functioning.    

“Children who are being bullied may experience injuries, loss of their possessions, loss of friends, low self-esteem, and they may avoid school by feeling ill or faking being sick, and a drop in grades,” Thunfors said. “It is important to note that these can also be warning signs for mental-health issues other than bullying. Kids tend to not tell adults about bullying incidents, so these warning signs can be important because a child might not come out and talk directly about being bullied.”

The AAP recommends that parents ask their child these three questions: do you ever see kids picking on other kids? Do kids ever pick on you? And, do you ever pick on kids?

One of the most important things a parent can do if their child is being bullied is to report the situation to a school leader. Parents should ask school leaders about what they are doing to empower the bystanders to become ‘upstanders’ — those children aware of the bullying, but who are not the victims themselves — to speak out in defense of a victim. Encouraging speaking up is an important effort schools can undertake to help change the culture around tolerating bullying. The AAP suggests that a parent go in calmly with a list of exact events and make sure to ask what the school is going to do to end the problem.

If you have any concerns that your child is being adversely affected by the actions of bullies, contact your pediatrician, who can refer them if need be to a mental-health specialist.