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Navigating conversations about bullying and what to look for

Many of us look back on our time at school with fond memories, but those who were frequently bullied might look back and feel differently. There are not many logical reasons why someone is bullied, but to grasp a deeper understanding of what bullying is, we also need to know how and why bullying begins.

Bullying is a pattern of aggressive behavior, often characterized as a power imbalance. Some of the most common forms of bullying include physical violence, social exclusion, verbal violence, and more recently, cyberbullying.

The reasons that children take the position of the “perpetrator” often vary, but it is important to know that bullying is a learned behavior. Children who bully often just want to belong, or they may be struggling with their own emotions. Oftentimes bullying is a mirroring of what the child witnesses or experiences at home. It can also be a response to what they are needing at home, such as attention or acceptance.

It is important to observe children and their behaviors to identify if or when there is a bullying problem present. Some of the most common signs to look out for to determine if your child is being bullied include bruises or injuries they can’t explain, social withdrawal, lack of sleep, faking illnesses or missing school, academic issues, headaches, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide.

While the signs of being bullied may be easier to see, how can you identify the signs to make sure your child is not the one bullying? Signs that your child is bullying others might include having new items or possessions, secretive behavior, excessive lying, unprovoked anger, and social withdrawal.

Noticing the signs and getting involved in your children’s lives is the first important step. You can use the following tips to start having conversations and to learn how to model appropriate behavior:

  • Education. Start by explaining the impact that bullying has on other individuals and why it is bad to do. It is very important to report bullying as a witness or as a victim to prevent further harm to others. Explain to your children the necessary action of stepping in and speaking out about bullying. Tell them how parents, teachers, or a trusted adult need to be involved to help.
  • Open line of communication. Children want to be seen and heard by their parents, so it is important to make sure you are involved in their daily activities. Ask them about their day and what they did, but also stay involved by asking about their feelings. Oftentimes children will want your attention, for you to play games, or for you to spend time with them. They may never tell you directly, so pay attention to changes in behavior.
  • Role modeling. Reflect on your actions and think about the example you want to set for your children. Show your children how to treat other people with kindness whether it’s at the grocery store, on the phone, or to family members. Demonstrate what to do when someone is being mistreated, and how to do it.
  • Encouragement. Encourage your children to be active in their classes or to join a community event that would get them involved with other children. Getting involved with other peers with shared interests will help boost their confidence.
  • Monitoring. Ensure that your child is being safe and smart on the internet. Communicate with them the expectations of social media, and how cyberbullying is a potential risk that everyone is susceptible to.

Communicating the risks of bullying with your children and noticing their behavior are ways that we can help stay involved. Teach your children to treat others with respect and model that behavior in your day-to-day life. Adults have the ability to step in and make a difference by navigating emotions with children while they are young. Take the time to teach children coping mechanisms and better ways to communicate with you. If you find that your children are still struggling with bullying others or by being bullied, try to reach out to a mental health professional. They can find ways to better help you communicate with your children and discuss the impacts of bullying.

Matthew Hardy, PhD, is the Chief Operating Officer for Centerstone, a not-for-profit health system specializing in mental health and substance use disorder services.

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