Growing up, you probably encountered plenty of kids who were unpleasant, if not downright mean — what you’d typically call a bully.
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Today’s kids are likely having a similar experience. In National Center for Education Statistics about the 2016 through 2017 school year, 1 in 5 students reported being bullied at school. Bullying in traditionally marginalized communities is also a persistent problem.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that U.S. high schoolers who self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) reported being bullied on school property (32%) and cyberbullied (26.6%) significantly more than their straight peers.
“Recent studies show that there’s been a rise in anti-Asian racism over the pandemic,” adds Zeyd Khan, MD. “Upwards of 80% of children in that group are speaking about some level of bullying. It’s really troubling.”
Bullying takes many different forms and can include verbal abuse. “In the past, you probably heard the phrase, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,’” says Dr. Khan. “But then, over time, we learned words are harmful in their own ways.”
Kids can also experience physical abuse and painful social experiences such as shunning, where they’re deliberately excluded from conversations or activities. “Ostracism can occur,” Dr. Khan says. “Or there’s character defamation.”
Cyberbullying — or bullying that happens online, often via social media — can also be a major concern. “Social media is a great tool to disperse information and be more connected,” Dr. Khan says. “But it offers unique challenges.” He points out the lasting effects of upsetting or mean comments as one reason, as well as the fact that this bullying can come from people hiding their true identity — or become widespread after going viral.
“Comments that maybe you could once brush off or move past pretty quickly are set in stone and sit with you,” Dr. Khan notes. “Perhaps you can’t even delete them or get past them as they keep coming back. Social media is such a part of their social life, it’s hard for kids to go offline.”
There’s no one surefire sign that your child is being bullied, Dr. Khan says. “Every kid is different. Everyone deals with this in their own ways.” However, here are a few signs of bullying:
It’s understandable that bullying might cause kids to be depressed, though symptoms of this might look different than you expect. “Adults who experience depression most commonly present with a sad and depressed mood,” Dr. Khan says. “But when children are depressed, you start to see irritability. The typical teenage-type mood is a piece of that — but when it’s prolonged, significant and a stark change from normal, then you start to worry.”
All of us have days when we just want to play hooky from work or school. But if your child frequently reports pain or physical symptoms as a reason for staying home, this may be a sign they’re looking to avoid school due to a bully. “You might start hearing your child say things like, ‘Oh, I’m having a lot of headaches. I don’t want to go to school. I don’t feel well.’ These might let you know, ‘Oh, there could be something else going on here.’ It would make sense — if a place you’re going to doesn’t feel safe anymore, then you don’t want to go there.”
Dr. Khan says anxiety, especially social anxiety, is very common for kids being bullied. As with school avoidance, stomach pains and headaches can be clues. That’s because serotonin, a neurotransmitter or chemical that your body’s nerve cells use to send signals, affects both your brain and your gut. Low levels of serotonin are linked to anxiety, headaches and gut problems like irritable bowel syndrome.
If your once-social kid starts to act differently, or their performance at school starts to change, this could also be a sign they’re being bullied. “Maybe you see that’s harder for them to concentrate,” Dr. Khan says. “Maybe their grades are starting to drop quite a bit. Maybe you start to see a loss of self-confidence. Those are all some warning signs that parents should be aware of and maybe be on guard for.”
The best thing parents can do is let a child know they have an open door to talk about anything that’s going on, and they don’t need to feel ashamed or embarrassed if they are being bullied. “The number one protective factor for children who are struggling is having at least one trusted adult who they can turn to,” says Dr. Khan. “Set aside five to 10 minutes every single day, just to talk to your kids. It can be about anything — the news, politics, sports, friends, their interests. The point is that it’s consistent and child-driven — so that if something were to come up, your child can bring it up during those conversations.”
Dr. Khan adds that knowing how to respond when your children bring up these upsetting things is also key. “A lot of parents talk about trying to solve those problems their kids are having. In some ways, that can be stressful because it brings up new challenges.”
He recommends the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen SoKids Will Talk,” as well as websites such as Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center and Act to Change. The latter two are comprehensive resources about bullying. “I’d recommend all families to take a look at these, along with your kid,” Dr. Khan says, “so you can start that conversation: ‘Has any of this happened to you?’ and then ‘What can we do to work through it?’”
Alerting your child’s school about any bullying you’ve heard about is also helpful. “Reach out to the school as soon as possible, because teachers and staff can be very helpful to keep their eye out and be present for your children,” Dr. Khan says. “School staff are really flexible, and they’re always looking for ways to make your children feel safer.”
However, if your child is exhibiting prolonged symptoms of depression or anxiety, or if you hear about severe bullying, a visit to your pediatrician is best. “They can do an assessment and help your child get to where they need to go — whether that’s someone like me or someone more for talk therapy,” Dr. Khan says. “Your pediatrician is really your go-to person for any physical or mental health needs.”
In the moment, stopping bullying when it’s already going on can be difficult. “There are only a few strategies that may have shown to be helpful,” says Dr. Khan. “Even those aren’t necessarily helpful in every single situation. Walking away or telling a bully to stop can be effective in some cases, but not in others.”
Confronting the bully directly also isn’t as effective. “What isn’t as helpful is necessarily talking back towards the bully,” he says. “Because while that can make you feel good in the moment, it doesn’t really focus on the person who’s really struggling in this.”
However, an outside person interrupting the bullying can sometimes help defuse the situation. “Come into the conversation, ask a question of the person being bullied — ‘Can you help me with something? Do you know where this is?’ — and maybe try to lead them away,” says Dr. Khan. “It’s a power struggle at that moment, and the bully is showing their perceived dominance — and if you’re able to take the other person away, you might confuse the bully.”
This gesture also shows support for the person being bullied, which Dr. Khan says is invaluable.
“In speaking with a lot of kids who have been bullied, the biggest thing they feel is this sense of being alone, that no one else around them who’s seeing this happen is intervening,” he explains. “As a bystander, the best thing to do is think about the person being bullied, and how you’re going to get them out of that situation.”
As with many problems, preventing bullying requires a village, Dr. Khan says.
“Bullying is a systemic issue,” he says. “On a larger scale, it’s affected by current events, as well as media representations. And so while we have to make changes at our community level, or neighborhood or family level, it also has to be a kind of change at a statewide and federal level.”
While anti-bullying legislation might be out of our control, you can have an impact close to home — namely, at your child’s school.
“Having anti-bullying policies at schools, having school conferences about anti-bullying, and then having parent meetings to hear about what sort of things are going on in the school are helpful,” Dr. Khan says. “A lot of parents may not know exactly what’s going on with their children at school. And if the lines of communication are open on both sides, you can start to see some of those problems — and you can stop these things before they’re starting.”