Sticks, Stones AND Words can Hurt You: Top 10 Things Parents Should Know about Bullying

Sticks, Stones AND Words can Hurt You: Top 10 Things Parents Should Know about Bullying

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By Colleen Cicchetti, PhD

In recognition of October as National Bully Prevention Month, I’ve been asked to share some thoughts about bullying and ways that parents can both understand its impact, and help their children to navigate complex social waters.

As a child psychologist and director of Advocacy and Community-Linked Mental Health Services at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago’s Department of Child & Adolescent Psychology, I spend a lot of time helping adults to better understand the challenges faced by children and adolescents in our schools and communities. In recent years, my work has allowed me many opportunities to help people understand the phenomenon of bullying.

Most adults can recall an experience in middle school or high school in which they were either bullied or observed a bully in action. I would guess that most of us also remember a time when we were excluded or ridiculed by our peers. But times have changed. Stories of self-injury, including suicides and parents retaliating against their children’s bully, are not readily explained by how we understand or remember bullying.

So what is different and what is the same? What can we do to ensure that we are aware of the social pressures? How can we be understanding and helpful to our children?

As a healthcare provider, and the mother of two girls — a teen and a tween — these questions are important to me. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of peer relationships.
    As kids move into the tween and teen years, there is an increasingly strong relationship between self-esteem and how students are viewed by peers.
  2. Most kids are fully aware of their social status, along with the risks of isolation.
    During this period, most youth have become painfully aware of social acceptability and popularity; and there is a strong tendency to conform and adhere to peer-based social norms.
  3. Any kid can be a target for bullying.
    Anything that makes a child unique or different can lead them to be a target of social isolation and/or bullying.
  4. Many kids have experienced bullying.
    Nearly 30 percent of today’s youth report being directly affected by bullying (Milsom and Gall, 2006).
  5. Kids won’t tell you unless you ask.
    A 2005 study of bullying indicated that about 24 percent of young people who were bullied told a parent; and only 14 percent told a teacher; 41 percent told a friend, and 28 percent told no one. When asked why they don’t tell adults, number one response was, “They won’t do anything anyway.”
  6. Look for warning signs
    Since kids don’t always tell us, adults need to look for warning signs that peer issues are emerging, including:
    – Withdrawal from friends
    – Sudden refusal or reluctance to go to school
    – Avoidance of activities that were previously enjoyable (including time spent on cell phone or electronic sites)
    – Changes in sleep or eating patterns
    – Physical complaints (i.e. headaches/stomachaches)
  7. Be available and ask questions.
    It’s important to establish a solid relationship with your child by listening to them talk about the things that are important to them, even if they seem trivial to you. This will help build the foundation for them to be willing to answer questions and speak more openly about problems they’re having.You should also ask them direct questions about their friends and social situations. Here are a few examples (from least direct to most direct):
    – Who do you hang out with?
    – Who do you sit with at lunch/on the bus?
    – Do you have a best friend?
    – Are there kids who you really don’t like?
    – Are there kids who tease you?
    – Are there kids who leave you out of things on purpose?
    – Are there kids at school who pick on you or bully you?
  8. Know when to intervene
    Kids will often tell you not to intervene. However, if you are not able to effectively coach your child out of the situation, you may need assistance from an adult. Consider a teacher, but also a school counselor, coach, youth leader or recess monitor. Can the adult help your child to find a peer group that will be supportive? Are there opportunities for small group social skills? Are there anti-bullying policies or lessons in place at school?
  9. Build up your child’s resilience
    The most powerful antidotes to bullying are:
    – Having at least one good/reliable friend
    – Having the social skills to join a group of peers and maintain friendships
    – Having a strong sense of self (who I am, what I believe in, how I act)
  10. Learn more!
    Many books and websites are available for parents that want to understand more about peer relationships and ways to help equip your child for success. I recommend:

Web resources:

*References: National Children’s Home charity and Tesco Mobile, 2005; Milsom & Gallo, 2006

Colleen Cicchetti, PhD

Pediatric psychologist, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Assistant professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

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