Ask Dr. Bell: Standing Up to Bullying

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Children's View

Ask Dr. Bell It’s understandable when kids are less than enthusiastic about going back to school in the fall, but for some, their reluctance may be more than just homework avoidance. Bullying causes many kids to dread school, and unfortunately technology has changed the landscape of bullying. But with a little effort, parents can help prevent and manage this all-too-common childhood experience.

Stephen Leff, PhD, a CHOP psychologist and an expert on bullying and victimization, defines bullying as aggressive or mean behavior that is repeated over time, typically in unstructured school settings such as playgrounds.

Bullying takes many forms:

  • Physical or verbal abuse
  • Social aggression, such as spreading hurtful rumors or excluding classmates from activities
  • Cyberbullying, which includes sharing pictures or messages electronically through Facebook and other social media, text messages or email 

Cyberbullying can be especially stressful because it spreads so quickly and publicly and isn’t limited to school grounds.

Kids may not mention they are being bullied because they are embarrassed, or, in the case of cyberbullying, they may worry that computer access or cellphones will be taken away. But you can be on the lookout for some warning signs: Some obvious clues include a child coming home with torn clothes or describing peer relationships negatively.

But the clues may be subtle as well. Is your child eating or sleeping less? Is she missing school more often because of headaches and stomachaches? None of these in isolation means a child is being bullied, but the more signs you observe, the more important it is to discuss bullying with your child.

The best thing parents can do is develop lines of communication early on with their kids. Talking with them openly for even five minutes a day makes it more likely that they will share problems when they arise. If they say something that concerns you, take it seriously — but don’t overreact.

Rather than approach other parents directly, try to resolve the conflict through a school mediator; some schools even designate an individual to deal with child behavior and bullying. Dr. Leff and his colleagues work with teachers and school administrators to develop bullying interventions in schools.

Although cyberbullying is still fairly new, early research suggests that taking away or limiting technology is ineffective in preventing or resolving conflicts. Instead, make sure your child understands that the Internet is not anonymous and harmful messages can be tracked back to the bully. It may be difficult for parents to keep current with technology and social media, but they are a big part of children’s lives, so advise kids to be cautious about what they share online.

It’s always important to support your kids and help them understand that they aren’t alone, that bullying can happen to anyone, and that it isn’t OK. You can also teach them to seek help from teachers if they’re concerned and that bullying in all its forms is harmful, even if the impact can’t be seen directly.