Imagine walking down the middle school hallway and someone insults you as you pass by.
Picture entering the school bathroom and watching as another student takes your backpack and dumps the contents on the floor.
Imagine being pushed by a classmate in the cafeteria or reading mean comments on social media.
These are common scenarios of a child being victimized by a bully.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 3.2 million children report being bullied during the school year. It is also estimated a staggering 160,000 teenagers miss school every day because of the fear of being victimized.
When your child is being bullied, it hurts. Parents want to help their child end the abuse but are often uncertain how to go about it. Here is a parent’s guide to advocacy.
Communicate with your child
Talk to your kids! Teach your children that sharing and communicating with their parents is important. Reinforce that parents are safe adults and encourage them to be open and share their experiences with you.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior by another child or group of children, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.
Bullying can inflict physical, psychological, social and/or educational harm or distress on the child who is targeted.
Cyberbullying is electronic aggression that occurs through the use of technology — hurtful words, photos or video sent through email or via instant or text message or posted on a website or social media.
Cyberbullying also means today’s students have less refuge from bullying than a generation ago. At one time, children could escape their tormentors at home or the moment they got off the school bus. Today’s victims endure a 24-hour cycle of text messages, e-mailed photos and videos and cruel online postings.
There is also a third, more subtle form of bullying called a hurtful bystander, someone who witnesses the act of bullying and is part of the problem.
Know the warning signs
There is a wealth of data showing the many negative health effects of bullying not only on the victims but also on children who are bullies. Symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, insomnia and bedwetting, to name a few, can certainly be secondary to organic illness. But these physical symptoms can also stem from bullying.
Reach out and communicate with your child’s pediatrician if you suspect your child is being bullied. Other warning signs may include:
- a decline in grades
- unexplainable injuries
- depressed mood
- a change in eating habits and sleep patterns
- feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
- school avoidance
- self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, self-harm or talking about suicide
If you suspect or have confirmed your child is being bullied, understanding the environment in which the bullying occurs is very important.
Questions to ask your child:
- Who does your child consider to be her good friends?
- How long has the bullying been going on?
- Where is the bullying happening? School? Bus? Social media?
- Do any teachers or other school staff members know about it?
- Is your child being targeted by one child or a group of children?
- Is the aggression verbal or physical in nature?
Communicate with your child’s school
Open a line of communication with your child’s school. If you feel comfortable, your pediatrician may also communicate with the school and provide more information. It is also helpful to identify an adult at school — someone your child feels comfortable talking to and who can listen to her concerns. In many cases, teachers are unaware bullying is even taking place.
Reach out to Boston Children’s BACPAC Program
Although anti-bullying legislation has been adopted in 49 states, the onus to protect children from victimization has historically been the responsibility of the child’s school system. The Boston Children’s Hospital Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative (BACPAC) — a formal patient-centered clinic housed in the Department of Neurology — is dedicated to supporting children and families and offering strategies to end the abuse.
The program provides the following tools for children and families:
- strategies to help end bullying situations and bullying-prevention advice for the future
- empowerment strategies on how to develop a network of adult staff at school who could be available to her and who could advocate for her at the level of the principal’s office when reporting bullying
- ways to improve your child’s friendship group as a strong friendship group (This has been shown to be an insulating factor against bullying.)
- education regarding their rights under Massachusetts anti-bullying legislation
- a list of various state agencies that could be called upon if the family feels the school is not adequately troubleshooting the situation
- reports and recommendations to share with the school in the hopes that the suggestions could be used by the school to protect your child
Lead by example
Children are often watching those around them, especially parents and other important adults in their lives. Set an example and show your children what good, healthy friendships and relationships look like because they will follow your lead.
Support your child
About the author: Jessica W. Tsai, MD, PhD, is a resident physician in the Boston Combined Residency Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center. She is pursing a career in pediatric oncology and has written about bullying in the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter @jestsai.
Learn more about the Boston Children’s BACPAC Program.