How To Help Kids Deal With Bullying

Bullying continues to be a major factor in schools and child environments.  While policy makers, schools, and parents have increased efforts to prevent bullying and respond quickly, the increase in technology and the ever present power dynamics and hierarchies that exist within social structures means that bullying will continue to be a factor for children’s lives.  Our hope is to provide tools and information so that teachers, parents, and kids themselves will feel better equipped to deal with bullying.

Bullying has been defined as “repeated, negative, ill-intentioned behavior by one or more students directed against a student who struggles to defend him or herself.”  Kids are being taught in school that there are three roles for kids: the bully, the victim, and the bystander.  The bully may use physical or verbal aggression, or relational aggression that includes rumors, and social exclusion.  While stereotypically victims are viewed as passive and submissive, this is not always the case.  Some children have a blurred role, alternating between the victim and the bully through their reaction.  The bystander is the “audience” for this to play out, anyone observing the bullying who may be in a role to get help.

Warning signs are a critical indicator that a child is experiencing or observing bullying, if the child is not coming to an adult for help themselves.  These warning signs may include bullying behavior.  Often, the first sign that a teacher or parent has that a child is struggling socially is when they themselves get in trouble, either for fighting back, or adopting the bullying role in other relationships.  When children start acting differently, either demonstrating increased irritability or aggression, or withdrawing and no longer participating socially, they may be experiencing social exclusion or bullying.

Schools have specific policies, and there are state and federal laws to protect children from bullying as well.  Communication between educators and caregivers is important, and parent-teacher collaboration to tackle the bullying problem tends to be the most effective intervention.  While typically schools are quick to adopt a “zero tolerance” attitude towards bullying, this tends to be less effective realistically, as many children are victims themselves, or the definition of bullying has become more subjective than objective.  More effective are naturalistic consequences, like empathic and relational conversations, mediation between peers, and therapy.

The outcomes of bullying can be dire.  Children who experience bullying may be demonstrating symptoms of trauma, including fear of school related stimuli, refusal to go to school, re-experiencing the trauma, hypervigilence, nightmares, and irritability.  A child may increase their aggression towards others, such as siblings, parents, or pets.  They may experience mood or anxiety symptoms, and distraction from true learning.  Even bystanders experience these outcomes, as they are unsure if they are safe, experiencing guilt for not standing up for a peer, or vicarious trauma from being around the event.

With comprehensive communication and programs that help support kids emotional and mental health at home and at school, bullying does decrease.  The key is to tackle the system.  Increasing punitive measures without having corresponding mental health supports is counterproductive, as is the mental health supports without the consequences.  Having safe schools may not mean safe neighborhoods unless the communication is coming home and enforced in the community as well as the school.  Bullying is difficult, but not inevitable, and we can help kids cope if they experience any role related to bullying.