parents must act if their child is being bulliedMost Americans do not take bullying seriously.  Sadly, school personnel don’t take it seriously either.  One of the most common myths about bullying is that it is “normal” and “everybody does it.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Children with special needs may become the victim of a bully.  If your child has been, or is, being victimized, he or she feels alone, unsafe and may even feel the victimization is justified.  The effects of bullying impact mental and physical health and academic performance, often for many years after the actual incidents occur.

Who is a bully and what is bullying

Only about 15 to 20 percent of children are ever involved in bullying, either as a victim or as the bullying child.  Bullies are children who have not developed the typical internal restraint system that other children have.  Male bullies tend to favor physical aggression, while female bullies tend to strike at a victims’ social standing and friendships.

Bullies begin their pattern of aggressive behavior at an early age, and continue the pattern of intimidation for many years.  A famous Norwegian psychologist who pioneered the study of bullying and how to stop it, Dr. Dan Olweus, identified three basic elements of bullying—bullying involves: 1) a pattern of aggressive behavior, 2) from a child in a position of power directed towards a child in a weaker position, 3) with the intention to do harm.

Why does a child become the victim of a bully

Up until about age seven bullies pick on anyone.  Between the ages of eight and 16, bullies target specific kids.  Those who become targets are more sensitive, cautious, and quiet than other kids, and more anxious. They also have a negative view of violence, withdrawing from confrontations of any kind and crying when threatened or attacked.  When confronted, they are gripped with fear.

The effect of bullying on a child can be loneliness, poor health, depression, anxiety and poor learning

Being bullied leads to feeling anxious which then increases the child’s vulnerability to further victimization because bullies single out anxious kids.  The difficulty victims have in sticking up for themselves seems to make other kids uncomfortable, and gradually, victims of bullying are rejected by their peers and become increasingly isolated and lonely.  Research shows that social isolation and rejection cause severe stress.

Children being bullied dread going to school and have stress-induced illnesses such as stomachaches, and headaches.  Even after the bullying ends, children who have been bullied are prone to depression and negative self-concept.

It is becoming more clear that children who are victimized have had limited practice in handling conflict.  Children need to be given opportunity to solve their own problems.  Over-protective parenting can erode a child’s critical problem-solving skills.  However, overly strict discipline techniques have the same effect because they limit a child’s chances to learn how to interact and deal with disagreements and conflict.

How to Handle a Bully

Most of the following tips come from an article published in Psychology Today by Hara Estroff Marano.

What Children Can Do:

  • Avoid bullies.  Walk away.  Play with a friend.
  • Use humor to block an attack, for example, “Look, Johnny, cut it out.  I don’t want you to be late for school.”
  • Or tell the bully assertively, “Get a life. Leave me alone.” And walk away. This may be the best defense for girls.
  • In general, seek out friendly children with whom you have something in common and build friendships with them.

What Parents Can Do:

  • Give your child plenty of opportunities to develop his or her skills and competencies.  Talk with your child about his/her gifts and strengths.  Enroll your child in classes or groups that develop competencies in activities that are valued by peers.
  • Ask your children how peers treat them. Children often are ashamed to bring up the subject. Parents must.
  • Teach your child assertive behavior. The real first line of defense against a bully is self-confidence.
  • Help your child come up with a set of clever verbal comebacks to be used in the event of victimization by verbally abusive peers.
  • Do not tell or teach a kid to fight back. Fighting back is the worst defense. In most instances, victimized children really are weaker and smaller than the bully—thus their fears of losing their fights may be quite real. Besides, not all bullying takes the form of physical aggression.  Reacting to any form of bullying actually increases the likelihood of continued victimization.
  • Enroll your child in a social-skills group where children learn and practice skills in different situations.
  • Increase the social opportunities of all kids, but especially victimized ones. Invite other children, and groups of children, over to the house. Encourage sleepovers. This is your job; parents are social engineers.
  • Model good relationships at home.
  • Shut off the TV: much programming reinforces the idea that aggression is the only way to deal with conflicts.
  • Do not expect kids to work it out on their own. Given the influence of the peer groups and reputational factors in maintaining the behavior of bullies and victims, it is extremely unrealistic to expect kids to alter the dynamics of bullying by themselves.
  • Always intervene. Adults have a crucial role to play in the socialization of children. And consistency counts. Any time adults do not intervene they are essentially training others to solve problems through aggression.
  • Intervene at the level of the group. Let all kids know bullying is not OK. Declare emphatically: “This is not acceptable behavior. You can’t do this here.”
  • Talk to your child’s teachers to find out what is normal behavior for children of that age group and to find out what the class atmosphere is like.
  • Talk to other parents; where there’s one victimized child there are likely to be others.
  • In the schools where bullying is prevalent there is a lack of support around reporting, speaking up, and making everyone aware of the issue.  Only consistent parental action can change this. Get the school involved. At the very least, ask that the school declare bullying off-limits. A change in the atmosphere of the school is not only possible, but helpful in reducing bullying.
  • Go to the school administration and demand that bullies be transferred to other classes or schools. Every child has the right to a safe school environment.
  • If all else fails, see that your child is transferred to another school. The same child may thrive in a different school with a group of children having different values.