Help Kids Deal With Bullying and Stress

Learn how to help your child cope with the effects of bullying.
Back to School: Dealing With Meanness and Bullying
Back to School: Dealing With Meanness and Bullying
girl looking sad

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Bullying is a widespread and serious issue. What was once brushed aside as a rite of passage, when kids were advised to "tough it out," is now understood as a potentially catastrophic problem among youth today. According to, 160,000 children in the U.S miss school each day for fear of being bullied. And with improved technology and the pervasive use of social media, inappropriate behavior between kids can occur outside of school hours via emails, text messages, and Facebook posts. These exchanges, known as cyberbullying, can be particularly hurtful and aggressive, especially if they are anonymous, and their harmful effects are often brought back into school the next day. Whether it's verbal or physical, bullying is a threat to children of all ages. Here are seven ways to help your child cope with being bullied.

Spot the Signs

Always be aware of unusual behavior. "Typical symptoms include physical complaints such as tummy aches, as well as worries and fears, and a child not wanting to go to school," says Steven Pastyrnak, Ph.D., the Division Chief of Psychology at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. "A normal defense is to avoid or withdraw from things that are making her stressed." Kids also have a tendency to externalize stress by acting out or being aggressive. "If a parent notices a child's change in personality -- anger, irritability, and defiance -- or changes in sleep, appetite, or academics, this can often be an indication that there's a problem." However, "it doesn't necessarily mean that they're being bullied; it could mean they're having a tough time with something, but you still want to find out what's going on," says Lauren Hyman Kaplan, a school counselor and a specialist in social-emotional education and bullying prevention. Keep a watchful eye on visible signs that may point toward bullying, such as torn clothing, bruises, or marks on the skin.

Start Talking

Ask questions and get your kids talking about their social situation. Know which friends they're getting along with and which ones they're not. "Establishing good communication should start well before the kids are having bullying problems," Dr. Pastyrnak says. "Keep it very general for the younger kids, but if you suspect a problem or if your child has vocalized a problem, press for more details. As kids get older, they have a significant awareness of peer relationships, so you can be more direct with your questions. When your kids talk, really listen to what they share and keep your own emotions in check. "Often parents will get angry or frustrated, but children don't need you to overreact. They need you to listen, reassure, and support them. They need to see you as stable and strong and able to help them in any situation. By establishing good communication early on with your kids, potential problems at school can be avoided or dealt with better," Kaplan says. Every child should have someone at home and at school whom they can go to if there's a problem. "In severe cases, bullying leads to depression and anything that contributes to depression becomes a risk factor for self-harm," Dr. Pastyrnak warns.

Be a Positive Role Model

Model appropriate behavior and language in your own relationships and teach your child appropriate ways to treat others. "Use polite, assertive language in your interactions with others," Kaplan suggests. Tell your kids not to be a bystander when they see others being bullied. Dr. Pastyrnak agrees: "Teach them to step in and say, 'No, don't do that'; to stand up for each other." But "never put this all on the kids' shoulders," he says: "If you have a situation where there is ongoing teasing, then the parent needs to talk to the teacher." Parents can also guide children by giving feedback on their behavior. "If kids understand what's expected of them and what's expected of other people, they're going to be in a much better position to report what's going on," Dr. Pastyrnak explains. Educate kids through words and actions about the acceptable behavior for interacting with others.

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