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by Steven Barreto, PhD, Bradley Hospital child and family psychologist
Many children face each school day overwhelmed by the silent fear of harassment by other school children. Statistics show that nationally up to 17 percent of children and teens are harassed or bullied by other children in their school. Bullies often target younger victims or look for children who show signs of anxiety or vulnerability, such as the "deer in the headlights stare." Bullies can be quite popular and teachers can be reluctant to directly confront bullies about their behavior.
Children may be too frightened to talk about the problem. Parents should be alert to the early warning signs of harassment, including changes in the child's appearance or behavior.
“Sticks and stones ... but names?” When does a parent know it is bullying?
Bullying isn't simply physical. Kids often use words to humiliate a vulnerable child or encourage the group to isolate or reject other kids. Bullying happens when someone repeatedly targets another child who does not have the ability to defend him or herself. That is why many educators and mental health professionals refer to bullying as harassment. Technological advances in communication present new opportunities for bullying through emails, instant or text messaging and chat rooms. Both boys and girls can be targets of physical and non-physical humiliation or rejection. Girls, in particular, may be victimized by rumors, sexual comments or social exclusion.
What's not effective?
Adults typically try to settle conflict by assuming that each child has equal responsibility. Parents or teachers may model negotiation, overlooking the imbalance of power between the children. Parents may try to “toughen up” their own children by encouraging them to “stand-up” to the bullying child. But if the problem is harassment, these strategies may not be enough. The long-term consequences of bullying for victims include greater risk of depression, anxiety and loneliness. The consequences for bullies and their communities are serious as well, including a greater likelihood of future physical aggression and criminal behavior.
Bullying and harassment thrive on silence. Parents can break the silence by listening and talking with their children about strategies for dealing with bullies. Kids can be encouraged to practice looking assertive and confident, to speak firmly and to practice comeback lines that are short and funny. With their parents' help, kids can develop alternate routes to bus or school, avoid places where bullies hang out, sit near the bus driver or walk with friends. Kids should also be encouraged not to give up and to join clubs and other social groups to widen their safe social circle.
Parents can work with teachers and schools by asking for a school conference to address the problem. Parents should keep a detailed record of harassment and the ways in which the school is handling the situation. Parents should ask if their school already has a bullying prevention committee and if the answer is no - they can work to establish a bullying prevention committee in their school. The most effective of these committees have representatives from administration, teachers, school mental health teams and parents. These committees develop programs that look at the total school environment and work to educate everyone to create a network of adult support for children. Such a network is particularly needed in the middle-school years, where children are learning to negotiate a social environment that is no longer primarily overseen by one teacher. There are many useful public education resources available free of cost on-line (e.g. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services HRSA www. Stopbullingnow.org). In the neighborhood, parents can team up to make their children's routes to school safer and to be on the lookout for harassment.
Teachers can be encouraged to involve students in creating classroom rules against bullying. Teachers should have a serious talk with the bully, explaining such behavior is not acceptable and explaining the negative consequences. Involving the bully's parents in these discussions can be very helpful. Of course, teachers also should listen to the victim's concerns and document episodes of bullying. There are many creative classroom solutions that will ease children's fear of retaliation, including anonymous drop boxes and surveys of bullying and harassment among the student population.
Source: Portions of this article were originally published in Rhode Island Family Guide. Some source material for this article obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services website: www.Stopbullyingnow.org