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Help Kids Deal With Bullying and Stress

Back to School: Dealing With Meanness and Bullying
Back to School: Dealing With Meanness and Bullying
girl looking sad

Fancy Photography/Veer

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 BullyingStatistics.org, 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.

Build Your Child's Confidence

The better your child feels about himself, the less likely the bullying will affect his self-esteem. Encourage hobbies, extracurricular activities, and social situations that bring out the best in your child. Solid friendships and allies can help your child bear the brunt of a bully as well. Assertive skills and experience with talking about feelings can further enhance self-esteem as children become more comfortable expressing their needs. Tell your child the unique qualities you love about him and reinforce positive behaviors that you'd like to see more. "As parents, we have a tendency to focus on negative situations, but kids actually listen better when their good behaviors are reinforced," Dr. Pastyrnak says. Honoring kids' strengths and encouraging healthy connections with others can affect self-esteem, increase your kids' long-term confidence, and prevent any potential bullying situations.

Teach Coping Skills

If your child is being bullied, remind her that it's not her fault, she is not alone, and you are there to help. It's important for kids to identify their feelings so they can communicate what's going on; therefore, parents should talk about their own feelings. What parents shouldn't do, no matter the child's age, is assume that this is normal peer stuff that will work itself out. "Work with children to give them coping skills," Dr. Pastyrnak says. "Talking and getting things off their chests can be very cathartic. Parents can then help problem-solve how to avoid interactions with somebody or how to be assertive." Try role-playing scenarios that your child may encounter and practice ways to react. Teach her to be a good communicator and make eye contact. "Build emotional intelligence skills and teach the difference between being assertive and aggressive, strong versus mean. Teach kids how to stand up for themselves and how to use 'I' messages such as, 'I don't like it when you do this because it makes me feel sad and I want you to stop,'" Kaplan advises. "It should never be accepted that a child is being picked on or teased." Helping your child deal with a bully will build confidence and prevent a difficult situation from escalating.

Prevent Bullying at Home

Bullying is often an attempt to feel powerful. "If a child has older siblings and has a tendency to be teased at home, there's a higher likelihood that she'll redirect those feelings of aggression and powerlessness at school, toward somebody she perceives as weaker or easily dominated," Dr. Pastyrnak says. "A misconception is that the bully is emotionally disturbed or has problems, but that's not always the case. There are lots of cases where well-adjusted, typical kids wind up in situations where they're treating others inappropriately." It's important to understand why the child is acting in a certain way and what's causing her to feel the need to bully others. Children may resort to bullying when they don't have much choice or control in their lives. Parents should make sure bullying isn't tolerated at home and also let little ones make decisions. If there's a bedtime routine, kids can decide what gets done first and last: reading a book, taking a bath, and brushing teeth. "In school, there's a schedule and kids have to do what the teacher says. At home, it can be difficult for them to be on more schedules. So it's very helpful if a parent gives kids some control over things," Kaplan suggests.

Partner With the School

Communicate with your child's school and report bullying incidences. "You can't expect the school staff to know everything that's going on. Make them aware of any situations," Kaplan says. Though more schools are implementing bullying prevention programs, many still do not have enough support or resources. "Parents and teachers need to be aware and get involved so that they can monitor it appropriately," Dr. Pastyrnak says. "Plus, as more and more young kids have smartphones or social media accounts, cyberbullying increases. Kids are more willing to say awful things when they have anonymity and what they say can be more dramatic than what is typically said face to face at school." Learn how to start anti-bullying and anti-violence programs within the school curriculum.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.

Corinne Schuman is a mother and licensed mental health counselor in Washington, DC.