Years ago, we called it teasing. Kids were encouraged to become stronger by tolerating the teasing, if not learning to give it back. Educators as well as parents often dismissed their children’s concerns. Sometimes, it was easier to “normalize” it like a rite of passage or a learning process.
The term “bullying” was reserved for the groups of high-testosterone boys who physically picked on and humiliated the weaker, smaller kids.
Over the past 10-15 years, “teasing” has appropriately come to be recognized as bullying. One may view bullying as child abuse by other children. If we ask ourselves if the behavior in question would be considered abuse if committed by a parent or other adult, then it is bullying.
Bullying takes many forms. In boys, it tends to involve overt aggression, either physical or verbal. In girls, it more commonly involves exclusion from peer groups. Name-calling is common. These are often hard-hitting words, which can be sexualized in nature or content. Cyber bullying is a major stressor for kids because they can instantly be ridiculed in front of their entire school. The humiliation from today’s methods of bullying can be horrific.
Your child may not initially confide in you that they are being bullied. Many children feel ashamed, thinking the fault is somehow theirs. If you notice your child repeatedly suffering from headaches, stomach aches, or not wanting to attend school or activities, bullying may be the reason.
Additional consequences of bullying can include symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks appearing in the child being bullied. Shame, guilt and suicidal thoughts (and sometimes actual attempts or completions), and intentional self-injury can also result. Emotional distancing from parents and friends is common because of the sense of shame and humiliation. A child being bullied may often beg parents not to complain to others about the bullying for fear they will be further ostracized.
How to Support Your Child
First, acknowledge your child’s pain–this is important. It is important to communicate that you will help them – they are not alone any longer. Be prepared to listen to your child’s frustration and fears. Second, talk to their teachers, school guidance counselors and principal about the situation to make sure they are aware (see additional school comments further down)
–in a large school, especially, these kind of actions can go unnoticed. The bullies may also be adept at perpetrating their actions when no one is around. A consult with the school can be done via phone to alleviate your child’s fears about repercussions. Involving the appropriate authorities is a necessary step. The school authorities are responsible for setting limits on the bullies, not your child. Collaboration with the school is essential. It is for the authorities to speak with students and their parents to stop the harassment.
If, however, your child is suffering from the symptoms noted previously–depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts etc.–then it may be wise to seek psychiatric help.
When I see kids for evaluations, I ask whether there is a history of their being bullied. Kids today are well aware of the term and the meaning. Schools are generally doing a good job educating kids on the need to not bully their peers and establishing criteria such as a “zero tolerance” policy, but obviously, incidents still occur.
I have found that it is important for children to share their stories, and very important for these stories to be heard by the parents– and the psychiatrist, if they are seeing one. It is important for children to have their pain acknowledged and to understand that the bullying is wrong, damaging, undeserved, and related to their current problems (depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, self-injury etc.).
If a child is suffering from being bullied, psychotherapy can be very helpful. I strongly encourage trauma-oriented therapy because trauma is exactly what your child is experiencing. Your child needs to get well as quickly as possible so they can resume their social development and education under the best possible circumstances.
Psychopharmacology can be helpful in some cases. It is always important for the psychiatrist to inform parents and patients of the possible benefits (and risks) of medications. If the child is depressed, anxious or experiencing panic attacks, an anti-depressant trial can often be helpful in controlling such symptoms and improving resilience. Sometimes, other psychiatric diagnoses are uncovered during the evaluation which may not be the primary reason the family sought the evaluation, but these may contribute to the overall picture. Issues such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or impaired social skills may coexist. Treatment for these issues can help alleviate the overall sense of suffering by the child, and reduce some of the reasons for being victimized.
Talk to Your School
Many states have passed strict laws regulating how school officials must respond to bullying. In New Hampshire, any school employee aware of bullying is obligated to inform the principal. The principal is the lead person with the ultimate official responsibility for investigating and putting a stop to the bullying. I encourage parents to use this resource on behalf of their child’s safety. Be aware though, that sometimes what you will hear back is that your child is the instigator, or that your child dishes it out to the same level as the others, or that no teacher has seen the bullying.Possible reasons for this response can include that your child may be exaggerating or fabricating the bullying. More common, though, is the likelihood that the bullies are clever enough to not act out this behavior within sight of the authority figures, and are able to do it in such a way that the only behavior observed is your child’s reaction. In this case, your best course is persistence with school authorities, and to continue thoroughly documenting the bullying incidents. You may also want to talk to other parents to see if their children are being bullied. If so, speaking to school authorities as a group may be a more successful force for change.
What If Your Child Is the Bully?
The professional consensus is that those who bully have significant emotional problems themselves. They may be acting out what they experience or see at home or in their community. These are often children with poor self-esteem, low self-worth, and chronic insecurities. Their lack of empathy or compassion for those they hurt often reflects underlying antisocial attitudes. The bullies need limits set by the authorities, as well as professional treatment. The families may need the involvement of social services if abuse or neglect is suspected. Such referrals are generally done by the school or mental health professionals.
In summary, bullying is a multi-dimensional process that is very harmful to the emotional and educational development of children. It can leave kids ashamed and with low self-esteem. Reaching out to schools for help is essential. Professional treatment can often be helpful to more quickly restore kids to an overall sense of well-being and resilience.