How can parents keep their kids safe from bullying?
We sat down with Mandy Fauble, LCSW, of Safe Harbor Behavioral Health at UPMC Hamot, to discuss her tips on preventing bullying and identifying this dangerous behavior in their own children.
Are there any signs that a child might be getting bullied?
Parents and other caregivers are in the prime spot to see if something is going on with a child, because they know them best.
- Avoid school
- Complain of tummy aches and headaches, and try to stay home
- Isolate or back off from their social connections
- Have a sudden change in grades
- Seem anxious about social media or social situations
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This can be harder with older children, because they tend to spend more time with their peers and less time with their family. It always helps to ask, check in on their social media, and check in with adults around them — school personnel, coaches, counselors, or even neighbors. It also helps, for sure, to communicate regularly, and let people know that you want to know if something seems off.
Even with all the attention bullying has received in the past decade, the problem seems to be growing rapidly. What else can be done?
There’s actually been some research indicating that bullying incidents are going down. It can be hard to imagine that, given we hear so many kids talking about [bullying], and we know they are experiencing it.
With any issue, sometimes it seems like it is happening more because people come forward, which is a good thing, though it can make it seem like no progress is being made. Really, people are just learning that [bullying is] not okay, and that they can get help. Similar things happened when child abuse, depression, and domestic abuse became less stigmatized — suddenly, we realize how much of it is going on.
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At the same time, you are making a wonderful point that our work is nowhere near done! And cyberbullying remains a concern, because adults are often behind the curve to understand what is happening. Finally, like so many issues that hurt our health, any bullying is too much.
Don’t you think maybe a little bullying is healthy? Obviously, there has to be a point where it goes too far.
That’s why it is so important to distinguish between teasing and bullying.
Teasing also isn’t okay (we want to nip that, too!), but it is definitely different from bullying. Bullying is when the aggression is meant to really torment, it is repetitive, and the person is using their power against their target, through harassment, use of embarrassing information, physical force, or things like creating a “gang up” of other people.
Something that’s really valuable about your comment is that difficult experiences, such as being teased, can help us develop our resilience as we go out into the world and learn that we are going to have to deal with tough things, including that sometimes people say hurtful things or don’t like us.
At the same time, what we are talking about here — bullying — goes far beyond that. We just don’t want to forget to send a message that people can find amazing strength to overcome difficult things. Often this strength is helped by those of us who are willing to support them to find it.
What’s the best way to talk with our children about how to handle being bullied?
Sometimes adults are afraid to talk with children about difficult topics. As a good rule of thumb, it is important to remember that having the conversation allows you to shape the child’s thinking so that you can be sure you are instilling the values and ideas that you find most important.
A “tip” in starting the conversation is to ask a young person what they think bullying means. When you hear the response, you can then tailor your conversation to the starting point of the young person. A 5-year-old may say it is being “mean,” and you might have a very basic conversation, whereas a middle school student probably has a more sophisticated understanding and has observed more complex challenges around bullying at school.
We want to start with the child’s understanding and build on that. When we ask questions to start, we also might hear about things that have happened that the young person considers bullying, and that information might be really important to us.
Do you have any helpful tips for parents on monitoring social media and internet use?
That’s the million dollar question, since so many of our kids are on gadgets! Here are a few thoughts.
Use of social media can sometimes be linked to depression and anxiety. It tricks us into wanting “instant” communication a lot of the time. People sometimes fall into a trap of seeing who has more “likes” or connections, or who seems to be “happier” or “better” than we are. So, in reality, we should already be thinking about being healthier with our social media use.
Parents can do a world of good by limiting tech at night — try collecting all family phones at 10 or 11 and disconnecting the router or cable for internet. Staying up late (or waking up intermittently to check on things) really hijacks our ability to get a good night’s sleep.
Getting a good night sleep can help us feel more prepared for the negative interactions we might have, and feel more rationale about what to do about them. Likewise, if a child is having difficulties on social media, the last thing they need is to be bombarded at all times of the day. Because kids have a tough time letting go, it helps when we step in and make the decision. They put up a fight but are usually grateful in these situations.
It’s okay to periodically check what’s being posted. Sometimes parents are afraid of invading privacy, which is important. We want to respect our children as they grow, but we have to realize that it’s not all that private if it’s going out into the world. So, assert yourself.
Which children are at a higher risk for bullying or being victims of bullying?
Good question! It definitely helps parents to try to understand if their child could have any vulnerabilities they want to think about when they send them out there into the world. Children can be at higher risk to be bullied if:
- They are seen as “different.” Maybe by being labeled as “gifted” or “overweight” or “underweight.” It is often a difference that is picked out, and bullies use it against them.
- They are seen as weaker or unable to defend themselves, either personally or because they do not have a strong peer group ready to jump in.
- They may be depressed, anxious, or deal with other concerns that inhibits social engagement.
- They are negative toward others.
Parents often think about ways to talk to their kids about their strengths, like by pushing them to engage in sports or academics that suit their talents. But part of being a well-rounded person is to understand how others can perceive us, both positively and negatively. So it can be helpful to teach kids how to appropriately respond to both compliments and criticisms in ways that are effective and build the child’s comfort level that it is OK to be who they are.
What can a parent do to protect their child or teen without making the situation worse?
I think a lot of parents are afraid to make the situation worse, for sure. We worry about meddling, or our child is embarrassed by it, or we just aren’t sure what to do.
One of the first ways to start is by considering all of your options and then weighing out the pros and cons. When your child is a little older sometimes it can help to have that conversation with them so that the plan can be something you and your child feel like you are partners in, that way your child feels your support. That’s so important when they are feeling isolated.
At the same time, parents sometimes have to take steps to protect the safety of their children, even if the children don’t like it. So that might mean taking away the device so the social media doesn’t haunt them, and it may mean going to a principal, or even to law enforcement if it is getting to the point that the child is at risk. Parents just sometimes need to give themselves permission to step in!
In any case, if a child is being bullied, a parent should keep a log of all incidents, all attempts to deal with the behavior, and any responses to that. It also helps to print any texts, photos, or harassing social media. After all, bullying can be illegal, and if a child’s safety is at stake, we need to step in.
It helps for parents to get support from their family, friends, and other allies on this, as it is hard on parents, too. It is hard to see our children hurting. But we don’t have to do it alone. Contact your family or friends, the school, school administration, SAFELine at 814-456-SAFE, or read up at stopbullying.gov, You can also contact local law enforcement. Get connected to feel more support!
If you have an emergency, contact the Crisis Center at 814-456-2014 or 1-800-300-9558. Safe Harbor’s SAFELine is a 24/7/365 hotline for youth that is there to assist with bullying or other concerns. Call 456-SAFE to get help!
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.