Here at Urgent Care for Kids, we love making new friends and believe that kindness is the best policy. Unfortunately, sometimes children run into other kids who don’t act with kindness, and it can be difficult for both the child and the parents. Since October is National Bullying Prevention Month, we spoke with Jessica Allen, an experienced elementary school counselor, to get the facts on what bullying is and how to equip your kids to handle it properly.
What are the most common types of bullying you see among kids today?
I think it’s important to first define “bullying.” (Due to it being such a buzz word these days, the word “bullying” can be used to describe a wide range of negative behaviors which may or may not actually be bullying). According to the Texas Education Agency, “Bullying occurs when a person is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself. It is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions. It involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time. It involves an imbalance of power or strength.”
That being said, I’ve seen verbal and social bullying more often than physical bullying. Verbal bullying can include repeated taunting, threatening, and/or name calling. Social bullying refers to things such as intentional exclusion, starting harmful rumors, and/or telling other children not to be friends with someone. Cyber-bullying is also becoming more prevalent (especially in middle school-high school) although I have not dealt with this as much working with elementary students.
Aside from hurt feelings, what are the other effects bullying can have?
Bullying can have significant effects on children physically, socially/emotionally, and on their educational experience as well. These effects can potentially last into adulthood. Children who have been bullied are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, complain of physical symptoms, miss more school, lower academic performance, and/or lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
What can parents teach their children at home to prevent them from being bullies at school?
I think one of the best things we as parents can do is to model to our children how to treat others with respect & empathy, starting with those in our household. As we know, children pick up so much more from what they live & observe than from what they are told. This includes how we handle family conflicts, stress/anger of our own, discipline, and interpersonal relationships.
In addition, we can be intentional about taking advantage of “teachable moments” in which we point out ways someone has shown empathy, asking our children to consider how someone else feels, etc. This can be done with real-life family situations, an interaction they observe on TV, at a store, etc. Another easy thing to do is to read books with our children about friendships/teasing/bullying and discuss how the characters handled certain situations and how that could apply to their lives. (I’ve listed some helpful books at the end of the interview). It’s all about keeping the lines of communication open, continually working on maintaining a relationship with our children, and being intentional about using authentic situations to teach character, empathy, and respect.
What is the best thing a child can do if they are being bullied at school?
It’s hard to give one “cookie cutter” answer as every situation is different. Once again, it’s important to distinguish peer conflict, rude behavior, and/or minor teasing from true bullying. Hopefully parents & teachers are having these types of conversations so that children can identify when someone is not being a nice friend or classmate versus when they are being bullied. (Each school district should have a bullying policy and information for what students can do if someone at their school is bullying them or someone else). It may be helpful to ask for this policy if it’s not otherwise posted or distributed.
For bullying situations, children should immediately get away from the child bullying them if possible and inform an adult (once again I would recommend referring to local school policy as they should have readily available ways to report bullying).
In the (non-bullying) situations where they are teased here or there, someone isn’t being nice, etc., there are many ways we can help empower our children to be problem solvers and feel capable of coping with negative situations in life with confidence. Once again, no cookie cutter answers, but they can assertively yet respectfully confront the person and tell them to stop, ignore the comment, use humor, remove themselves from the situation, etc. Of course, they are encouraged to inform their parents and teachers, where they can gain further support and affirmation in handling these types of situations.
Is there ever a point where parents should get involved when they feel their child is being bullied?
Yes. The “Love and Logic” parenting principles (which are a wonderful resource) emphasize that the more the child is able to respond effectively to the problem him or herself, the more resilient and capable the child becomes. Of course, it is understandable when parents become upset, show emotion, and talk about ways of rescuing the child when bullying occurs. The problem is that over-emotional responses could make it easier for the child to take the reciprocal response of helpless victim. This can sometimes be avoided by involving your child in a discussion of options, mutual problem solving, and providing encouragement and support.
That being said, we certainly want our children to recognize when they are being bullied, know it’s unacceptable, and have the assurance that there are adults to help keep them safe and take care of the situation. An open line of communication with your child’s school is certainly encouraged and helpful. I would recommend parents gather as much information as possible from their child (details, specific things said/done, names, times, locations) and report the bullying. As mentioned before, the school should have a way to report bullying which is made readily available and can be done so confidentially. Keep in mind if the school is not already aware of the situation, they will need to investigate the situation before immediately implementing solutions/consequences, and having as many facts and details as possible is very helpful in any investigation, as opposed to vague generalities.
Again, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open with your child, ask questions, and be aware of changes in behavior, etc, as our children don’t always come out and tell us when they are having problems.
Lovell, Patty. Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon. New York: Scholastic, 2002. When the class bully at her new school makes fun of her, Molly remembers what her grandmother told her and she feels good about herself.
DePino, Catherine. Blue Cheese Breath and Stinky Feet. Washington D.C.: Magination Press, 2004. Steve is picked on by a bully and is afraid things will get worse if he tells asks for help. His parents come up with a plan to help their son.
Ludwig, Trudy. Just Kidding. California: Tricycle Press, 2006. A joke that has a sharp edge to it can cut you to pieces. That’s what D.J. finds out from his encounters with a smart-aleck classmate. With the help of grownups he trusts, D.J. learns how to stand up to put downs and make healthier friendship choices.
Ludwig, Trudy. My Secret Bully. California: Tricycle Press, 2005. Monica is emotionally bullied by her friend Katie and learns how to cope and thrive with the help of her mother. The book also includes helpful tips, discussion questions and additional resources for parents, teachers and counseling professionals.
Ludwig, Trudy. Sorry! California: Tricycle, Press, 2006. Jack learns that there’s a whole lot more to a real apology than a simple “sorry!” This story illustrates how a child can take ownership of hurtful behavior and make right his/her wrongs.
About the Author
Jessica Allen currently operates a home -based childcare, specializing in toddler-preschool age children. She started this venture after 11 fulfilling and successful years in public education, teaching elementary grades for 4 years and then serving as a school counselor the last 7 years in the East Texas area. She was honored to be named the Chapel Hill ISD District Employee of the Year for the 2012-13 school year. Jessica received her BS in Interdisciplinary Studies at Texas A&M University and her Master of Arts in School Counseling at the University of Texas at Tyler. She has been married to Billy (Deaf/Special Education teacher) for 11 years and they are the parents to two girls: Moriah (4), and Jaidyn (2). The Allens have had the joy and adventure of helping to parent ten foster children over the last 8 years, ages 7 months- 19 years. Jessica enjoys (in no particular order) coffee, her family, church activities, watching high school & Aggie football, and reading a good book when she gets the time!