Bullying is a common experience for many children and adolescents. Research indicates that half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, and at least 10 percent are bullied on a regular basis. The National Education Association estimates that over 160,000 children stay home from school every day because of bullying. According to the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 19.9 percent of students say they had been bullied on school property during the 12 months before the survey.
Children who are bullied can experience serious emotional difficulties. Bullying can interfere with social development, self-esteem and school performance. Victims of bullying are also at increased risk for problems with anxiety and depression. Some victims of bullying even attempt suicide in an effort to escape the ongoing harassment.
Children who bully thrive on controlling or dominating others. They may be depressed, angry or upset about events at school or at home. Sometimes, they've been victims of abuse or bullying themselves. Children who bully are at risk for future problems at work and in personal relationships. They also have an increased risk of substance abuse and legal difficulties.
There are lots of ways parents can help a child who is being bullied. These include:
- Create an open, honest and supportive environment. Encourage your child to talk about what's happening. Don't blame them for the harassment. Let them know that you'll help them figure out what to do.
- Encourage your child to be assertive rather than aggressive when confronted by a bully. Suggest walking away to avoid the bully or seeking help from a teacher, coach or other adult.
- Help your child practice what to say to a bully so he or she will be prepared.
- If the bullying is occurring at school, talk to your child's teacher, guidance counselor or principal sooner, rather than later. Schools now realize that bullying is a serious issue. Most have implemented specific policies and procedures to intervene as early as possible.
- Encourage your child to travel with friends when going to and from school, during shopping trips or on other outings. Bullies are less likely to pick on a child in a group.
- If your child shows signs of stress, anxiety or depression, get an evaluation by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Such signs may include trouble eating or sleeping, irritability, reduced energy or reluctance to go to school. Some children may also react to stress with increased physical complaints including headaches or stomachaches.
If you believe your child is bullying others, try and talk to them about what's going on. Are they angry or upset? Is there a problem at school or with friends? Rather than punishing them, let them know that you're concerned and that you want to help. Consider talking to the child's teacher, guidance counselor or family physician. If the behavior persists, ask for a referral to an appropriate mental health professional.
Although bullying is a common experience of childhood, the effects can be significant and long term. Early identification and intervention for both bullies and their victims can reduce the risk of lasting emotional consequences.
More information about bullying is available from:
Dr. Fassler is a child and adolescent psychiatrist affiliated with Otter Creek Associates in Burlington. He is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont, and the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families.