Back-to-school health: Recognizing (and dealing with) bullying

Every September children are quickly integrated into a whole new peer group at school, and it’s not always easy. New classmates can mean new social issues that you and your children aren’t used to, including bullying.

Bullying is a very serious concern in schools all across the country. But it’s a term that means different things to different people—what’s bullying to one person may be seen as “kids being kids” to someone else—which can make it tricky to identify and put a stop to bullying at school.

To help parents better understand what bullying is, both from a medical and legal standpoint, I spoke with Peter Raffalli, MD, FAAP, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s BACPAC (Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative).

“Bullying is the repeated abuse of a person by a peer or group with the intent to cause discomfort or harm,” he says. At the root of this abusive relationship is a power imbalance where a stronger personality is preying on a weaker one. The abuse can be emotional or physical. The victim of a bullying situation is unable to adequately defend him or herself and is often afraid to report the incidents because they’re scared the abuse will get worse.”

Warning signs that your child may be experiencing bullying include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they didn’t eat lunch.
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about suicide

If you’re worried that your child may be the victim of school bullying, Raffalli suggests that you:

  • Teach your child that the bullying is not his or her fault.
  • Work with the school to gather and share as much information as you can about the bullying. The more everyone knows about the situation, the more everyone can help.
  • Make sure the school assigns a “safe adult” for your child, someone confidential he or she can turn to—and make sure you know what the school is doing to keep your child safe. If needed, this person should be available on playgrounds, between classes and on the bus.

But bullying isn’t always contained on the school’s grounds. In the digital age, where children have near constant access to text messages and the Internet, cyberbullying has become the most prevalent type of bullying behavior. Many experts believe this type of aggression is so widespread because it seems more “stealthy” from the bully’s vantage point. (It’s less likely to draw attention and it’s easier to taunt someone via a screen than face-to-face.)

But unlike physical or verbal bullying, cyberbullying almost always leaves a digital trace that can be used by parents, teachers and, if necessary, law enforcement, to identify and hold the aggressor responsible. If you’re concerned that your child is being bullied but don’t see any physical indication and/or school officials say they haven’t seen any signs, cyberbullying may be the cause.

The best way to intervene or prevent cyberbullying is to be very aware of what your child is doing online. Know what sites he uses and who he interacts with while there. It also helps to:

  • Let your kids know that if you are worried about cyberbullying you may read their online communications. Parental control or monitoring programs may help, but kids can be very clever when it comes to bypassing these safety measures. Don’t rely on them exclusively.
  • Ask for their passwords, but tell them you’ll only use them in case of emergency.
  • Ask to “friend” or “follow” your kids on social media sites. If they balk at the idea, ask another trusted adult to do so. This can be especially important if you suspect cyberbullying.
  • Encourage your kids to tell you immediately if they, or someone they know, are being cyberbullied. Explain why it’s important that you know about online bullying incidents and that you will not take away their computers or cell phones if they confide in you about a problem they are having.
  • If you have young children, get involved with their Internet life early, and stay involved. Waiting until middle school is too late—by then, your child may see it as an invasion of privacy.

For more information on bullying, please see these blog posts:

My daughter is being bullied on Facebook, what can I do?

Bullying—Why do parents miss it?

Can the term bullying be overused?

Our patients’ stories: Bullying due to a medical condition

Boston Children’s helps a school take a stand against bullying


2 thoughts on “Back-to-school health: Recognizing (and dealing with) bullying

  1. This article brings back anxious memories of when my son was in middle school and I finally figured out that he was being bullied. He was terrified that I would tell anyone at the school, for fear of being bullied even more! I was so torn as to what to do–of course, I didn’t want it to continue, but I didn’t want to do anything to make it worse! It was such a Catch-22 situation–he begged & pleaded with me not to tell anyone. I did, of course, end up telling the dean of students, with assurances it would be handled with utmost discretion. However, the bullying didn’t really stop until that boy moved away. It was a heart-wrenching time, and has had lasting effects on my son and his psyche. He is now a senior in college, and battles manic-depression. Who knows if he would have developed that with or without the bullying, but it certainly couldn’t have helped! My heart goes out to all children who suffer from such hurtful treatment.

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