Baystate Children’s Hospital Warns Parents of Bullying Signs

SPRINGFIELD — As more and more stories about bullying make the headlines both locally and nationally — including, in the past year, the high-profile suicides of a bullied elementary-school boy in Springfield and a high-school girl in South Hadley — parents and educators are becoming increasingly concerned about these aggressive behaviors that not only have physical effects, but can take a toll on a child’s emotional health forever.

“Bullying is repeated, intentional, aggressive behavior toward someone more vulnerable than the bully,” said Dr. John Fanton, staff psychiatrist at Baystate Behavioral Health Child Psychiatry.

Baystate Children’s Hospital providers encourage parents to be aware of the different types of bullying and to take each time it happens seriously:

  • Physical: hitting, kicking, stealing belongings.
  • Verbal: name-calling, taunting, insulting.
  • Psychological: intentionally excluding or spreading rumors.
  • Cyber: sending cruel text messages, e-mails, or instant messages, or posting insults on the Internet.

Physical effects of bullying include black eyes, bruises, headaches, sleep problems, and stomachaches. Bullying can also lead to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and changes in behavior such as school avoidance.

“Bullying damages a child’s sense of themselves and has severe social consequences,” Fanton said. “A child whose self-esteem is affected may start to believe what other children say is true, and begin to self-bully with thoughts of being weak, ugly, or worthless, which can lead to self-loathing and feeling hopeless.”

What can parents do to help? “Reminding their child of their positive qualities and behaviors is always a great place to start, such as ‘I’m proud of you being able to tell me about this difficulty. I know it may not be easy to talk about,’” he said. “Be wary of telling your child to fight back or asking for remediation with the other child. Nowadays, children will retaliate with weapons instead of settling their disagreements the old-fashioned way with a fistfight in the schoolyard, and remediation has been shown to be more harmful than intended. You want them to learn to be assertive, not vindictive.”

Fanton said that parents, instead, should talk with their child to reassure them, and explain that bullies are just trying to make others feel bad because they think they will be more popular or have more power by putting others down.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following additional tips whether your child is being bullied at school or in the neighborhood park:

  • Tell your child not to react to the bully by giving into demands. Bullies like nothing more than to get a reaction such as crying. Ignoring bullying when it starts sends the message, ‘that won’t work on me.’
  • If your child’s attempts to disregard the bully aren’t effective, he or she should become assertive with their harasser and make a statement such as, “I will talk to you, but I am not going to fight. So put your fists down now.”
  • Encourage your child to form strong friendships. If they have loyal friends, they are less likely to be singled out, and they will have allies if they become a target of harassment.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher or principal at school if the situation persists.

“If there is any concern that your child isn’t getting better or is harboring revengeful thoughts, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s pediatrician, who can refer them to a mental health specialist,” Fanton said.

And if you have any concerns that your child is in immediate danger from suicidal thoughts or otherwise, call Psychiatric Crisis Services at (413) 733-6661.

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