Eight tips for talking to your kids about bullying
The start of the school year is a great time for parents to discuss navigating common social concerns with their children.
Bullying can happen to anyone at any age. And the effects of bullying can extend well into adulthood, leading to depression, anxiety, health complications and decreased academic performance. Yet many adults are hesitant to intervene when children are bullied, said Shawn Worthy, Ph.D., professor of Human Services and Counseling at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
RED talked to Worthy to learn best practices for parents to keep in mind when having conversations about bullying with their children.
1. Know the sources of bullying
For K-12 kids, bullying occurs most frequently in middle school, with 28% of middle-schoolers reporting being bullied in 2019, compared with 19% of high school students. Additionally, approximately 16% of students experience cyberbullying every year, though that number is likely an underestimation, Worthy said.
“Whenever you have something that is humiliating or socially inappropriate, you tend to get an underestimate of it because people don’t want to say that it’s happening to them,” Worthy said.
In schools, students can experience verbal, physical or relational bullying, as well as property destruction. Online, cyberbullying can occur over social media, text messages, direct messages, emails or while gaming. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Education define bullying as unwanted aggressive behavior that involves a power imbalance, whether real or perceived, and is likely to be repeated.
2. Recognize the symptoms
Worthy said to keep an eye out for any of the following symptoms that may occur as the result of being bullied: sadness, isolation, loss of confidence, bruises, injuries, “lost” or broken items, declining grades, trouble eating and sleeping, loss or change of friends and avoiding specific people or situations.
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3. Understand why bullying happens
Typically, bullying occurs for a couple of reasons. The first reason, Worthy said, is because the child has experienced bullying and their response is to bully others. Bullying can also happen when something else is going wrong in the child’s life and he or she doesn’t know how to deal with it.
“A lot of times, bullying is displacement,” Worthy said. “Something is making them angry or frustrated, and they can’t deal with it where it’s happening, so they take it out on other people.”
If you discover your child has bullied someone, Worthy recommends taking steps to prevent bullying from happening again and talking to your child about any problems they’re having at home or with people who are close to them.
4. Keep the lines of communication open
“It’s important to talk to your kids about bullying, but it’s more important just to talk to your kid,” Worthy said. Creating positive habits around communication can go a long way, he added, saying young people who have a habit of honest communication with their parents are much more likely to tell them when they’re being bullied.
Parents who don’t regularly communicate with their kids can start small. Worthy said spending time with your kids, even while eating dinner or driving to school and back home, can help create space for kids to feel comfortable talking to their parents about difficult subjects.
“The reality is that you don’t choose when important conversations happen,” Worthy said. “Your kid chooses when the important conversation happens, and if you’re not around when they need you, it likely won’t happen.”
5. Teach your kids how to stand up to bullies
As long as it’s safe to do so, young people should feel empowered to step in when they see bullying happening and stand up for the person being bullied. But it depends on the circumstances, Worthy said. Kids often aren’t particularly good at understanding social cues and nuances, so ask for details about the situation before offering advice.
“When one or two people step up and ask the bully to stop or notice it or don’t laugh at it, that goes a long way in stopping the bullying,” Worthy said.
It’s also a good idea to let your child know they should talk to whoever is in charge when they see bullying. Hopefully, the adult will step in to correct the behavior.
Cyberbullying, though, is completely different, Worthy said. That’s because it can come from multiple places and can be anonymous, and the comments or pictures can have a lasting presence.
“The better option (online) is not to engage, because a lot of times they can turn their bullying to you,” Worthy said.
6. Talk to your kids about online safety
Cyberbullying and online safety, especially on social-media platforms, are intrinsically linked, Worthy said. It’s important to have a bigger conversation with your kids about how to protect themselves when using the internet. For example, kids should know to never disclose their address, phone number or Social Security number online. They should also know how to identify unsafe links and sites that can lead to viruses or data mining.
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Additionally, he recommends talking to your kids about parental controls that are available on social-media sites.
“You don’t want to secretly monitor your kids online, but you do want to have some parental controls in places where you can check in every now and then and help your young person understand what constitutes bullying and abusive behavior,” Worthy said. “Sometimes, they don’t recognize it when they experience it.”
7. Take bullying seriously
If there’s one major takeaway for parents to know about bullying, it’s to take it seriously, Worthy said. Bullying can impact a child’s life for an extended period, and parents should always show concern when their child is involved in a bullying incident.
“It’s not uncommon for people not to want to get involved,” Worthy said. “But ‘kids will be kids’ is not an OK response.”
If your child does approach you about bullying, Worthy said there are three things to remember when entering the conversation: Don’t shame them. Don’t blame them. Believe them.
8. Seek help
Visit online resources such as stopbullying.gov and the CDC’s violence-prevention page for facts and general advice about bullying. If you’re worried that your child is being actively bullied, talk to the school or the school district, which should have resources such as counselors or social workers available. Outside counseling is an option if additional support is needed.