They come in all shapes, genders and sizes, and when they turn on your child, it can be torture. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has updated their policy to encourage pediatricians to view bullying as a health issue due to teen and adolescent suicides related to repeated taunting. Their definition says, “Bullying is when one child picks on another child repeatedly. Bullying can be physical, verbal, or social. It can happen at school, on the playground, on the school bus, in the neighborhood, or over the Internet.”
Pediatrician Dr. Shakha Gillin told Breezy Mama that as a result, doctors now, “Screen for bullying and encourage positive relations for children.” She also emphasized, “that bullying can be a huge issue on the Internet. It is important for families to discuss with their children appropriate uses of the computer, and how to avoid being bullied on the Internet.”
Dr. Gordon Caras, PhD, A.P.C. of the SD Psychoanalytic Institute gave Breezy Mama tips on what to do when your child is the victim of a bully and advice if it’s your child that’s the accused culprit.
If a parent comes to you with a distressed child because of a school bully, what is the first thing you advise them?
I first advise parents to use measured reason rather than unrestricted might or force to deal with the problem. Parents using bullying tactics in an undisciplined, reactive way to deal with bully-problems usually creates bigger problems. This includes possibly alienating school officials who may perceive the parents as unreasonable or “difficult”, thereby redirecting the problem onto the parents. All the while, their distressed child continues to suffer, with no one role modeling how best to resolve the issue.
Next, I suggest that parents gather as much information as possible to obtain a concise picture of the problem, its history, what attempts their child has made to resolve it, what other children might be involved as bullies and targets of bullies, who has been informed, etc… If the bullying has been going on for a while, despite their distressed child’s efforts to prevent it, then I encourage the parents to talk with the school officials and/or the alleged bully’s parents so all can (hopefully) collectively and effectively address and resolve the issue. What is most critical is that the distressed child finds that other adults are there for support and protection when needed. This builds and fosters the child’s trust in trusting-relationships from those who are trustworthy, and likewise teaches them that some relationships are bad, like ones with bullies or bullying-relationships. Most importantly, however, is that the distressed child’s problems gets resolved: them being bullied stops. Therefore, it is critical that the parents continue to follow-up on the status of the problem from their child and school officials.
Bullying is going to happen. What steps can you tell parents to help their child cope?
The fist thing parents can do is to teach their child that the child is not the problem; the bully bullying is the problem. Often, victims of bullies blame themselves for the pain they incur from the bully’s assaults, whatever form they may take, be it physical and/or verbal. Parents can try to determine what meanings and fantasies their child is linking to the bullying. It is important for parents to be mindful that children can easily feel that the bullying is due to some failure or deficit in themselves (the distressed child), where silent messages, such as, “If only I was tougher or bigger or not a wimp, this wouldn’t be happening!” may reside. Also, bullying often occurs in front of an audience of peers who emotionally conspire with the abuse, even cheering the bully on at times. So the child may feel he or she is under peer scrutiny, with no peer allies to turn to for help without feeling weak or embarrassed for not tackling the bully head-on.
Next, parents can help problem-solve with their child. This includes telling the child to avoid or to walk away from the rising storm of being bullied when possible, or informing the teacher of the problem. Parents can also help their child to see that bullies exist in all walks of life, even at the “office”, although typically in more subtle ways. Here parents can share how they have felt when they had encountered some bullying experiences, how they handled it, who they turned to for support, how they resolved. The more the child feels that the parents can identify and relate to the experience, the more the child is likely to not feel alone and to attribute self-deprecating attributions to the event that are corrosive to their self-esteem and self-image.
What steps do you give the parents of the accused bully to help their own child understand their behavior is not okay?
I suggest to the parents to discuss together as a united voice the problem with the child who is allegedly the bully. Parents need to intervene right away with their own inquiry with their child, following up with the teachers and/or the parents of the child being bullied in order to obtain as thorough account of the matter as possible. Concurrently, parents need to express how disappointed and concerned they are with their child, who in all likelihood will deny the allegations, at least initially. Like the parents of the child being bullied, the parents of the child who is allegedly the bully should try to better understand why their child needs to feel powerful or big or popular or cool or otherwise by sadistic methods. Are there home circumstances that may be giving rise to the problematic bullying behavior or such tendencies? Is the child manifesting or expressing feeling helpless in the face of a problem as home, such as being bullied by an older sibling or reacting to the parents relational problems? If necessary, the parents would be well advised to consider seeing a professional therapist for an assessment to better treat the problem, whatever it may be, before it worsens. Most likely, the school will be able to recommend some therapists who specializes in working with children. Remember, role modeling is crucial. Children live what they learn, even though what they learn is refracted, edited and revised through their own own eyes and interpretations of their surroundings.
When a parent refuses to acknowledge that their child is the bully, what other steps can a parent of a child who feels attacked take?
Involve the officials to intervene at school or wherever else the incidents are occurring. Make sure to inform the proper officials of the problem so they can begin a paper or mental trail and continue to monitor the alleged bully’s activities. If there are recurring, similar complaints from other parents, this preponderance of corroborative evidence by multiple sources can bring to light the parents realization and acceptance that their child is acting as a bully and needs help to understand the underpinnings of the problem.
How can a parent get across to the teacher and principal that the problem is much more impactful on their own child’s well being than they are realizing?
There are plenty of ways to impact the teacher and principal to realize the impact the bullying is having on the child. I suggest that parents always make it personal, but in a reasonable way. That is, meet the the teacher and principal directly, face-to-face. Tell them that they are the guardians of the child when the child is under their watch. Therefore, they are responsible to look into the matter and make sure it is resolved. If need be, parents can contact a Student Advocate for more guidance. A Student Advocate is a professional independent of the school system who is specifically trained to mediate irresolvable issues between families and school organizations pertaining to the child’s educational programs and needs. One can find Student Advocates in their area by using Google.
What steps should a parent take when the school is just not listening?
At that point I suggest that they contact a Student Advocate to advise. Also, the parents can contact via letter and phone call the School Board or Superintendent’s office to speak with someone who oversees these situations. They could also have a face-to-face meeting, again to make sure to put a more personal signature on the issues. In most cases, the message will quickly trickle down to the school officials directly involved in the problem (the teacher and principal) from their superiors. Parents should make sure to carry out their contact via paper trail for record keeping.
All this lets all involved know that the the parents are viewing the problem very seriously, with the responsibility to resolve the problem resting in no small measure on the school’s shoulders, while the parents work on the “heart” and personal meanings of the matter at home with their child.
Sometimes the bully is a well liked kid who is a great student with great parents but for some reason picks on one child in particular. How do you then get the message across that it’s not okay for your child to be picked on even if the tormenter isn’t considered a “bully?”
Parents get the message across that it is not OK, no matter who the tormentor is, by not tolerating the tormenting of their child. Again, I advise parents to constructively use their resources and potential allies rather than alienate these resources by acting unnecessarily, if not preemptively bullish themselves in their effort to protect their child. If the alleged bully is felt to have “great” and therefore considerate and responsible parents, then elicit them in looking into the problem. For sure, those parents would want to know that their child is tormenting someone so they can understand why and help their child before this tendency worsens.
Any other advice for helping children cope with bullys?
Remember, we all face bullies in one form or another, in subtle and not so subtle ways, throughout our lives. The lessons that parents teach their child now in how to deal with this reality will bear continued growth for the child emotionally in years to come–like not remaining in bad relationships or unreasonably blaming oneself when problems inevitably arise. Being mindfully involved and available for the child whenever they need to talk about the problem is best balanced with intuitively knowing when and how to discuss the problems in a way that does not feel intrusive or invasive to the child. Try to help the child find ways to resolve the problem by themselves; this helps the child to build their confidence in themselves and to cultivate problem-solving skills. But always be alert on when and how to protect the child in ways that they are unable to do for themselves. Parents should forever strive to find the optimal level of being at once a bedrock of loving and dependable support for the child as well as the wind that continues to foster of the child’s emerging autonomy and independence in the world of “playground politics” and elsewhere.
About Dr. Caras
Gordon Caras, Ph.D., is Psychologist as well as an Adult, Adolescent and Child Psychoanalyst in private practice in Solana Beach, California. Dr. Caras is also a Senior Instructor at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute as well as a Voluntary Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of San Diego, School of Medicine. He has been a presenter at different National and Regional Conferences throughout the U.S. Dr. Caras works with individuals of all ages, as well as with couples, on a broad range of issues that are roadblocks to achieving their full potential. To contact Dr. Caras, call (619) 687-1590 or email him at email@example.com
Breezy Tip: For more information on childhood taunting, visit this page on the American Academy of Pediatrics’s site and scroll down to their section on bullying.
Shakha Gillin, M.D., F.A.A.P. attended UCSD for her undergraduate education and medical school (she’s also the twin sister of Breezy go-to dermatoligist Dr. Vi). She practiced pediatrics in La Jolla for 5 years before joining El Camino Pediatrics. She has also worked in private practice in Newport Beach and in the Rady Children’s Hospital Emergency Department. Dr. Shakha Gillin has a special interest in preventative care, particularly healthy and active lifestyles for children. She was recognized by San Diego Magazine as a “Top Doctor” in 2006, 2007 , 2008 and 2009. She also organizes the North County Pediatric Journal Club, an every other month meeting where local pediatricians discuss the latest pediatric medical topics.
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