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Bullying: Not just child’s play

A woman looks at a young boy.

How to know if your child is being bullied—and what to do about it.

Farkus from A Christmas Story, Nelson Muntz on The Simpsons, the stepsisters in Cinderella—it would be nice if all bullies were make-believe like these. Unfortunately, they're not.

Real-life bullies can be found on playgrounds, in school hallways, in gym class and online. They look for someone to pick on—to punch, harass, frighten and intimidate. Often they are relentless.

Children who are bullied can find themselves in a terrible dilemma. They can't defend themselves, and other classmates may be afraid to come to their aid. If they ask an adult for help, they worry they'll be tagged a tattletale or a snitch.

That's why it's often up to parents and other adults to be alert for the signs of bullying, so they can stop the destructive behavior early on—not only for the sake of the child being bullied, but also for the children witnessing it and even for the bully.

Why bullying is bad news

Bullying isn't a benign rite of childhood, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The suffering it causes is real, and in some cases it can interfere with a child's social and emotional growth.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), kids who are bullied are more likely than other children to:

  • Be depressed, lonely and anxious.
  • Have low self-esteem.
  • Skip school.
  • Drop out of school.
  • Think about suicide.

Is your child being bullied?

There are many reasons why your child may be reluctant to tell you if he or she is being bullied.

According to Mental Health America, research suggests most kids don't think telling an adult will prove helpful. In fact, they often worry it will backfire and bring even harsher treatment from the bully.

But if your child is being bullied, he or she may be telling you in less direct ways, says the HHS. These include:

  • Coming home from school with clothes or belongings damaged or lost.
  • Having unexplained cuts, bruises or scratches.
  • Having few, if any, friends to spend time with.
  • Seeming fearful about going to school.
  • Losing interest in school or having grades plummet.
  • Complaining of headaches or stomachaches.

Some children might pack sticks, knives or other forms of protection in their school bags.

Addressing the problem

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other experts suggest taking the following steps if you suspect your child is being bullied.

Talk to your child. Let him or her know you care. You may want to start with some questions: Who are your friends at school? Are there some kids you don't like? Does anyone at school get picked on?

Find out as much as you can. Learn how often the bullying occurs, what it involves and who the perpetrator is. Ask if other kids have witnessed the bullying and what their names are.

Be supportive. Let your child know he or she isn't to blame. Ask what he or she would like to see happen. Reassure your child that you will help.

Talk to school staff. It's probably best to start with your child's teacher. You may also want to talk to other adults, such as the bus driver, gym teacher or playground aides. A guidance counselor may be helpful too.

Let the school talk with the bully's parents, experts advise. Resist the urge to step in yourself. And don't encourage your child to retaliate. If a fight ensues, someone may get hurt or suspended from school.

Be sure to follow up with your child and the school. If the bullying continues, contact the school again. You also may want to seek help from a counselor.

Stopping the behavior is important for everyone, not just the child being abused. Bullies can create a climate of fear and anxiety. And often bullies themselves are troubled kids, notes the AAP. Left unchecked, they may grow up into troubled adults.

How to help your child

In the meantime, encourage your child to make friends with others. His or her teacher may be able to suggest some friendly classmates. Consider inviting a few over to your home.

Suggest ways your child might handle future bullying episodes. For example, tell them to seek help from a responsible adult.

And you might want to help your child practice being more assertive. Suggest that he or she stand tall, look the bully in the eye, and then calmly turn and walk away.

Finally, make sure your child feels safe, loved and heard at home. Give him or her a share of your undivided attention every day so you can hear all about the good—or not so good—things that happened.

Reviewed 8/30/2022

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