Abigail Schlesinger, MD, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UPMC, discusses ways to help children cope with bullying, as well as what to do if your child is the bully.

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– This podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. Clinicians should rely on their own medical judgments when advising their patients. Patients in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider.

– It can be a problem for children at any age: dealing with a bully. Hi, I’m Tonia Caruso. Welcome to this UPMC HealthBeat Podcast, and joining us right now is Dr. Abigail Schlesinger. She’s the chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UPMC. Thank you so much for joining us.

– Thank you for having me.

– Back-to-school bullying is always a big topic. From your perspective in your work, can bullying have a significant impact on kids?

– Yeah, for sure. So, first of all, a lot of bullies have experienced bullying before in the past, right? So, certainly feeling like you’re being coerced, being hurt by someone, these can cause lifetime traumas. I think many people who describe interactions on the playground, being upset by people, may not have sort of gone to the full impact of bullying and won’t be traumatized for a lifetime by it. And that’s why I really like to back it up and say, you know, the first thing we want to do is, talk to our kids about what’s happening, make sure they understand what bullying is, and that they also stand up for their peers if they see it happening, right? Because sometimes the person being bullied isn’t in a position to stand up as well as they’d like to, and getting help from a friend can really flip the switch.

– How has the internet and cyberbullying changed things?

– Well, so, the way that people can bully each other has not changed. We can still bully each other in lots of ways, but the internet has just expanded the nature of the interactions, right? So, again, on movies, you may see interactions with people talking, people joining in, but it’s just the group around you. On the internet, there may be people on the other side of the world that could see it, or your entire class. And it’s really set up children and adolescents to be in a position where they might inadvertently jump into a conversation on social media that maybe had the element of bullying, and then they become a target of bullying because of what they said. And oftentimes kids that aren’t as sort of adept socially are more at risk for these situations in person, but on social media, that’s even more of a potential problem.

– Does it enable more people to become bullies? Because you don’t have to, you’re not saying this in person, you can sort of hide behind.

– I think there’s a lot of people concerned about how easy it is to just sort of flip something off on the internet. And, you know, you don’t have the immediate reaction to it. So, you know, I think we still have a lot more to learn about how to train our kids, how to interact both in person and on the internet.

– As you and I were talking before we got started, you were kind of telling me, I need to look at this in a different perspective.

– Well, certainly bullying is important, right? And bullying is whenever anyone does anything that is meant to coerce, make upset, or hurt another person, and we often think of it in early childhood or high school. We don’t often talk about bullying in adulthood. But we also, I think as parents, as people want to think that it’s simple, that there’s a bully and there are other people that aren’t bullies. But the fact of the matter is, we’re probably all capable of bullying behavior if we aren’t thoughtful and don’t develop the skills to think about how other people feel and how our behaviors impact others.

– All right. So, first then, as a parent, if you have a child, what should you be instilling in your child so they aren’t the bully?

– Right. So, from a young age, we should be talking to our kids about how they feel and how other people around them feel. So we’re really talking from a young age — 3, 4, 5 — and how their behaviors impact others around them. You can start by simply saying how their behaviors affect you. If something they did upset you, it’s OK to say, “That made me upset.” It doesn’t mean you need to get upset at them, but explaining how you feel and asking them to explain how they feel, both good feelings and bad feelings. Not that there are any bad, wrong things,

– Right.

– but if they don’t feel well. And then the next step is helping them describe how they think other people around them are feeling.

– Right. So, my head, instantly, when you begin to talk about bullies is the bully and what to do if your child is the one being bullied. What are the signs, and how should parents approach this?

– Right. So I often take a bigger picture to that, too, and think first, if you see your child struggling for any reason, a parent will automatically go into sort of, “What’s going on?” mode, right? And I think bullying is an easy thing to go to, to start thinking about, although it’s upsetting to think about the possibility that your child might be bullied. It’s important, first, to remember that if a child’s simply saying they’re being bullied, help understanding what’s going on. So a young child might get confused by play and think they’re being bullied, and they’re not, right? So don’t automatically jump to bullying. You want to understand better. Whenever any kid has anything going on, the first thing, no matter how young they are, is you want to say, “What’s going on? What do you think is going on?” So that’s the first step. And then, you asked what signs are, and I think that’s very important. Certainly, if any child wants to start avoiding things, comes home without things, or certainly, an extreme example would be evidence that they’ve been hit, kicked, pushed, you should ask questions.

– And then what do you do? Is it OK to tell your kid, “Hit the bully back”? If there’s physical, an altercation involved, shoving into the lockers, you know, whatnot, what do you say to your kid?

– So that’s the answer in every movie, right? And if life was only a movie, it might be a lot easier. In reality, often bullying comes out of a perceived difference in power, right? And if there’s already a perceived difference in power between the person that’s doing the bullying behavior and the person that’s being the victim, the likelihood that they’re going to win a fight might be low, right? And now we’re in a difficult situation where your kid might get hurt. You need to teach your child to stand up for themselves and walk away.

– Stand up for themselves and walk away. Is there a language that, when you work with children and adolescents, I know you’re both at Western and Children’s Hospital, is there a particular language that you tell them that they should use while standing up to a bully?

– Well, I think it depends on the age and the nature of the kid. And oftentimes I’ll have to ask the child first, “What do you think you should say?” Because they’ll give you their language, right? They’re not our age, they’re not adults, they don’t have our life experience. We don’t want them to use our language. And, you know, a sassy teen might say something much different than a 6-year-old, who might just say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and turn around and leave. And the key thing is talking to them about leaving doesn’t mean that they’ve screwed up or that they’re not doing the right thing, that actually walking away when someone is not being appropriate to them is the appropriate response.

– When is it time to get an adult involved? You know, do you, as a parent, you know, should you be fighting your child’s battle? When is it time to call the school? What does that look like?

– Well, if someone’s hurt your child, I think you should get involved. That’s not fighting your child’s battles. That’s helping to determine what needs to happen, asking the school, “What do you think I need to do?” Getting the school highlighted to something might be going on, could you think about it? So I don’t dissuade parents from communicating with the school. That’s a great place to learn more about your kid. So I don’t think that you should go and argue for the kid. I think we need to teach our kids to stand up for themselves, but getting adults involved is a way to sometimes sort of get through it and figure out what’s the best next action.

– We talked about parents, what would you say to teachers and school administrators about the subject of bullying and really how to address it? If I’m a teacher and I’m seeing this in my classroom, what do you think is the right thing to do?

– Well, I think schools are doing a great job with this. So, I see the curriculums coming out, I see what my own child, what their school has talked to them about empathy, about connecting with people, about not excluding people. I think schools are doing a great job, and in a difficult time. I do think that schools can continue to work, as we all can. That when parents say, “Hey, I’m concerned about my kid,” listening to what the concerns are, and helping to come up with plans to support every child to do their best.

– What would you say is the one thing that you want to say to parents that they absolutely should not do in this situation, or should not encourage their child to do in retaliation to a bully?

– Retaliate. Right? You get angry, you get upset. And we all have a tendency, you know, when we get upset, to get angry. And I think we want to teach our kids how to recognize their emotions, take a deep breath before they act on them, right? ‘Cause it’s when we’re moving quick and retaliating that we do things that set us up for being bullied further or for being hurt, even. So, it’s about taking a deep breath and not teaching your kid just to react real quickly.

– Right. And just in general, as a parent, as a psychiatrist, I would assume you’re really good at being a parent. And because you have all of this knowledge, should a parent be asking questions every day? Like, when, what do you say to your children every day, just to kind of get a vibe and see where things are, or you don’t even have to do that?

– Well, first of all, none of us know all the time what to do, right? But I do think being open with your kid, talking about emotions, a lot of people struggle with talking about emotions. That’s one thing we don’t struggle with in our household. There’s a lot of emotion talk. So, using words for emotions, not pushing your kid to speak all the time, but taking advantage of those times when they may be sort of trapped in a scenario with you, like in the car, right?

– Trapped in the car.

– Yeah. Yeah. Great for teenagers, also good for young kids. But recognizing also that even young kids have times they’re just tired or don’t want to talk and being OK with that sometimes.

– Right. Well, Dr. Abigail Schlesinger, thank you so much for coming in and spending some time with us today. Some great information as everybody heads back to school. Thank you for your time.

– Thanks a lot.

– I’m Tonia Caruso. Thank you for joining us. We’ll see you next time on UPMC HealthBeat.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. 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. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.