October is National Bullying Prevention Month and bullying was in the news again this week after a 16-year-old boy took his own life because his peers posted private text messages on social media.
Ask anyone who grew up before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were popular and they'll tell you bullying was prevalent, but wasn't anonymous and ended when kids went home from school each day. Now, there are anonymous bullies everywhere. "Keyboard warriors", as they're sometimes dubbed, are able to bully 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. So what constitutes bullying? And how can you help prevent it? Our partners at Children's Hospital Colorado share some tips below.
Bullying is, unfortunately, a common occurrence in many schools. As a parent, you probably worry about how to prevent bullying, or how to recognize the signs your child is being bullied at school. Natalie Abramson, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado, shares some of her insights to help put parents' mind at ease.
Three types of bullying
There are three types of bullying, according to Dr. Abramson:
- Social: Spreading rumors, encouraging others to reject or exclude someone, embarrassing someone in public
- Verbal: Threatening, teasing, name-calling, making sexual remarks
- Physical: Hitting, pushing, spitting, stealing or breaking others' belongings, making mean hand gestures
Physical bullying is the type of bullying that is easiest to pinpoint, but social and verbal bullying can have just as much – if not more – effect on children. Thankfully, there are a few ways parents can detect signs of bullying and possibly put a stop to it.
How to prevent bullying
Dr. Abramson shared tips for parents who want to prevent their kids from being bullied:
- Ask them: It's always best to have an open dialogue with your kids about things that might make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable on and off-line. Often, directly asking a child if they have been bullied or made to feel uncomfortable, threatened or unsafe online is the best way to start this conversation. Make sure your child knows he or she can talk to you about any issue whether significant or insignificant and that you will hear them out, listen and not necessarily talk back.
- Pay attention: Paying attention to changes in kids' mood and behavior of your kids can help you spot if something is wrong. If a child is becoming more irritable, withdrawn, sad or anxious, this can be a sign of bullying or that your child is dealing with other stressful situations in his/her life. Create a network of relationships not only among your child's peers, but also among their parents so that there are lines of communication to keep tabs on what might be going on in that circle of friends.
- Know their online habits: Ask your children to share with you the websites they like to visit and people they connect with online. Although close supervision is very important when children are engaging in unsafe online activities, parents can usually monitor their children's online activities simply by expressing a genuine interest in learning about what they like to do online.
- Set limits: Set limits for your kids on when and where the Internet and cell phones can be used. Use computers, tablets and smartphones in shared spaces at home (i.e., kitchen, den, living room) and keep children's bedrooms technology free. This creates important boundaries around technology use and will also help you better monitor your child's online activities.
- Talk about the risks: Talk to your child about safe and unsafe online practices. Kids may not be aware of the risks associated with cyber-bullying or other unsafe online activities. The Internet provides a sense of anonymity that can increase the risk that children will fall victim to bullying or predatory behaviors.
- Be open and honest: Conduct regular communication with school personnel. Ask your child's teachers, coaches, guidance counselors and other trusted adults questions beyond academics to find out how your child is doing socially and emotionally at school and within their peer groups.
Frequently asked questions about bullying
A panel of experts from Children's Colorado recently held a candid conversation about bullying and cyberbullying. Here are the top questions from parents and answers from our experts.
What do I need to know about bullying?
Look for the signs:
- Isolation from peers or family, withdrawal from normal activities, loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, irritability, changes in behavior, negative statements about oneself, loss/decline in self-confidence or self-esteem.
- Younger children may show their distress in more externalized ways (i.e., by acting out).
- Adolescents may become more withdrawn or internalize their distress. These behaviors can be signs of a problem at any age.
When does it start:
- Bullying can begin early in elementary school years and is problematic at any age.
- Cyber-bullying tends to be more of a problem in adolescence as teens become more actively engaged with social media, cell phones and the internet.
- Younger teens and children may still be exposed to cyberbullying through technology such as online video games or other activities that expose them to online communities.
What makes a child a bully?
- The development of bullying behavior, aggression and other problems usually depends on a combination of factors related to the child's disposition and experiences.
- Media violence does not create bullies nor are children just "born" this way.
- However, media violence can desensitize children to real violence and normalize interpersonal aggression.
Dealing with a bully:
- Usually a parent should first reach out to other adults before confronting a child bully. Try to talk directly with the bully's parents or teachers and school counselors about addressing the problem.
- Ultimately, it's important for the bully to know that their behavior is not acceptable.
Is it bullying or just kids being kids?
Bullying is any unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. There is a substantial range in the intensity and impact of bullying, from mild taunting to overt physical violence.
The three most common types of bullying are:
- Verbal — teasing, name-calling, inappropriate comments or threats of violence
- Social or relational — excluding someone on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors or embarrassing someone in public
- Physical — hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping or pushing
Bullying can happen during or after school as well as online. Cyberbullying can be messages posted anonymously and sent quickly to many people.
- Once these messages have been sent, deleting any comments or pictures from the Internet is incredibly difficult, so discuss these dangers with your child as he or she becomes more technologically savvy.
- Monitor your child's online interactions frequently and set limits on the amount of time he or she spends engaging in social media.
- Encourage more face-to-face peer interactions.
It's never been an issue, but I want to keep it that way. How do I prevent my child from being bullied?
A new setting with new people often creates a new social dynamic. Changing schools or participating with a new peer group can set up a bully situation. Even if the players haven't changed but bullying could still present itself.
The following are some ways to prepare your child and prevent bullying:
- Encourage him or her to be a friend and to make new friends.
- Some kids might worry about making new friends and "fitting in." Finding a safe, welcoming group is a great foundation for dealing with the ups and downs of school. Learn more about helping your kids make friends.
- Help your child understand that every part of building friendships is a skill, so the more they practice, the better they will get. Some of the skills may be: introducing yourself, showing interest in others' comments, finding common ground from which to build upon, inviting people to do things, etc.
- One person's "joke" can easily be another person's hurt feelings. Coach children on considering how their words and actions could be interpreted by others. Set expectations early on for appropriate behavior, and listen to how they interact with their friends.
- Teach your child empathy and how to be a good friend.
- Research shows that hostility between siblings is not innocent and can leave a lasting, detrimental impact. Do not tolerate bullying or aggression between siblings.
- Know your child's online world – check their postings and visit sites they frequent.
How do I know if my child is being cyberbullied?
Cyberbullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that takes place using electronic technology (phones, tablets, computers, as well as social-sharing sites and apps). This type of bullying tends to be more of a problem in adolescence as teens become more actively engaged with technology. Younger teens and children may still be exposed to cyberbullying through online video games or other activities that expose them to online communities.
Five ways to find out if your child is being cyberbullied:
- Ask them. It’s always best to promote an open dialogue with children about things that might make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable on and off-line. Just asking a child directly if they have been bullied or made to feel uncomfortable, threatened or unsafe online can be the best way to start this conversation.
- Pay attention to changes in mood and behavior. This can be a signal that something is wrong. If a child is becoming more irritable, withdrawn, sad or anxious, this can be a sign of cyberbullying or that your child is dealing with other stressful situations in his or her life.
- Be aware of what your child is doing online. Ask them to share with you the websites they like to visit and people they connect with online. Although close supervision is very important when children are engaging in unsafe online activities, parents can usually monitor their children's online activities simply by expressing a genuine interest in learning about what they like to do online.
- Set limits on when and where internet accessible technology can be used. Use computers, tablets, and internet-connected phones in shared spaces at home (kitchen, den, living room) and keep children's bedrooms technology-free. This creates important boundaries around technology use and also helps parents better monitor their children's online activities.
- Talk to your child about safe and unsafe online practices. Children may not be aware of the risks associated with cyberbullying or other unsafe online activities. The internet provides a sense of anonymity that can increase the risk that children will fall victim to bullying or predatory behaviors.