By Sarah Mahoney
If you read the news, you’ve seen the headlines: “Mother Blames Son’s Suicide on Bullying,” “Youth Violence, Hateful Speech Expose Dark Side of Social Media,” “Bullied Student Sues School.” Bullying has become such a widespread problem that the government has recognized it as a major mental health concern for kids. And for some of those kids, it has tragic consequences—a truth brought home by cases like that of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who committed suicide in January after being tormented by older teens, and Scott Walz, a high school senior from Johnsburg, Illinois, who committed suicide in March after years of bullying.
And unlike in the past, when kids confronted each other at school, today’s bullying can reach mass networks of people through things like texting, Facebook and YouTube. Sixty percent of high schoolers say they have experienced cyberbullying, according to research by Elizabeth Englander, PhD, professor of psychology at Bridgewater State College and director of The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.
What can parents do to protect their kids? Turns out, a lot more than they think.
Read the Clues
Phoebe Prince had reportedly been bullied in her native Ireland, so her mom was on alert when the family moved to
the States. And Scott Walz’s mom also knew of her son’s abuse because it had reportedly been going on for nine years. But many other parents are in the dark. Heather McPherson of Studio City, California, remembers the night she innocently asked her then 12-yearold son about his homework. His reaction stunned her. “He started to cry,” she says. Finally he told her that some kids were taking his books in class, and that they’d also called him “faggot.” Heather was incensed. But she also felt guilty that she hadn’t noticed the signs. “I kept asking myself, What did I miss? ” she says. (Photo by Shutterstock.)
“It can be very difficult as a parent to see the clues,” says Susan Limber, PhD, professor of psychology at Clemson University’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life. A big reason? Our antennae aren’t up. With the stress of work and home, it’s not unusual for parents to take for granted that everything’s OK with their kids, especially since some signs of bullying, like moodiness, sadness and anxiety, mimic the ordinary ups and downs of adolescence. As for cyberbullying, a recent Yahoo! online safety survey found that 81 percent of parents know what cyberbullying is, yet in Dr. Englander’s study, nearly 70 percent of teens said their parents either don’t worry or rarely worry about online bullying.
But they should, and kids’ unwillingness to talk about any type of bullying just makes it harder. “About 60 percent of children don’t tell their parents when they’re being picked on at school,” says Susan Swearer, PhD, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a leading bully researcher. Some clam up because they worry their parents will “fly off the handle and make matters worse,” she says. Other kids keep quiet due to embarrassment, or they think they can handle it themselves. So if kids aren’t telling, it falls to parents to figure out what’s going on.
In Heather’s case, her son’s tears spurred her to coax the truth out of him. Once she knew the full story, she fired off an email to the school’s director and her son’s teacher. Both assured her that the bullying would stop. “When I picked Matthew up that day, he told me that the problem had solved itself because the teacher happened to change everyone’s seat,” says Heather.
If you do notice a change in your child’s behavior, even if it’s small, keep an eye out for other red flags. That’s what Carla Ring of Foxboro, Massachusetts, did when she noticed that her eighth-grade daughter was she used to love, and her grades were slipping—all possible signs of a child who’s being bullied, says Dr. Swearer. (For more, see “11 Warning Signs,” right.) Carla soon noticed something else: “She was constantly texting: mad, frenzied texts, like she was putting out fires.”
At first, her daughter refused to open up, but Carla and her husband pressed her. It turns out some girls were calling her names and starting rumors about her—classic mean-girl tactics. “Boys tend to bully physically, while girls are more likely to use relational aggression, like gossiping and shunning,” explains Dr. Swearer.
For Carla, forcing the issue worked. But pushing kids to ’fess up when you suspect bullying isn’t always the best tactic. Demanding answers when a child doesn’t want your help is “one of the most challenging moments of parenthood,” says Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl and founder of the Girls Leadership Institute in Santa Cruz, California.
Your child may say, “Everything’s fine,” but if your sixth sense says otherwise, keep pursuing it, adds Dr. Limber. Just use a light hand. “You don’t want your kids to feel like you’re grilling them,” she says. Start a conversation in the car while running errands together or when you pick them up after school. “You’re not talking face-to-face, which may be more comfortable for kids,” says Dr. Limber. “The downside is that you won’t catch their body language, which can also provide clues.” So find other times to talk as well: at the dinner table and, with young ones, when tucking them into bed.
No matter where you start the conversation, the tricky part will be to get kids talking, especially if your normal way of checking in has been superficial at best. Too often parents limit chats to grades (“How did you do on your quiz?”) or easily-brushedoff questions (“How was your day?”). Encourage kids to share their whole school experience. You’ll gain better insight into their social lives, says Marlene Snyder, PhD, director of development at the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at Clemson University. Ask indirect questions: “Is it fun to ride the bus?” “Who’d you hang out with today?” It’s a lesson Heather learned the hard way. After her son’s bout with bullying, she began asking more about his social life and less about homework.
You have every right to check your kids’ Facebook pages and their cell phones. There are even free Facebook apps, like GoGoStat Parental Guidance and Social Shield, that allow you to set parameters and monitor use. “But be open about what you’re doing,” says Dr. Limber. “So much of the parent/child relationship is based on mutual trust, and parents should try to respect that—without having blinders on.” (Photo by Vanessa Davies.)
Tammi Fitzgerald of Chandler, Arizona, was glad she finally took hers off. She knew that her son James, 16, who is overweight, was struggling with bullies and she’d alerted the school. But one day she peeked at his open Facebook page and was horrified. “There was post after post of cruel comments,” says Tammi. She made copies of the pages—an essential move, say experts, since it proves harassment. But when she went to the school, all her son’s teacher could do was put the online bullies on notice. Since cyberbullying typically takes place on kids’ own computers, it’s harder
for schools to act due to privacy issues.
React the Right Way
Once you’re aware of the situation, your first reaction may be the same as Heather’s or Tammi’s: boiling mad and ready to fight back. Some parents, however, have the opposite response. “They minimize the issue, thinking, Well, kids will be kids,” says Dr. Swearer. Downplaying the problem won’t make it go away. Instead, follow these steps. (Photo by Comstock Images.)
1. Assess the level of bullying. Is it one child saying mean things? A group of kids texting taunts to the whole class? Physical bullying? “All types of bullying should be taken seriously, but how you handle it will depend on the nature, severity and duration,” says Dr. Limber. Jot down the details as your child tells you, noting the dates and names of the kids involved. Make copies of hurtful Facebook pages or texts too. This way you’ll be clear on the facts. And let your child know that you plan to contact his school. “If he pushes back, fearing retaliation from the child who is bullying, explain that usually adults need to get involved, and reassure him that it’s the best way to put an end to the bullying,” say Dr. Snyder.
2. Email or meet the teacher. “Naturally you’ll be upset, but you’ll get more cooperation if you stick to the facts without letting your anger get the best of you,” says Dr. Limber. Your goal is to work together to find a solution.
If the teacher can’t resolve the problem, involve the principal, says Dr. Snyder. “Put it in writing, explaining the steps you’ve taken, and ask that he intervene.” Find out what he plans to do to keep your child safe. “Then monitor the situation,” says Michele Borba, EdD, an educational psychologist and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. “And if you’re not satisfied, meet with the superintendent or, if necessary, the school board.”
How the school responds will be determined by their anti-bullying policy and disciplinary procedures. Most states require schools to have an anti-bullying policy. (See “Does Your State Have an Anti-Bullying Law?”, right.) Get a copy of it from the principal so you’ll know exactly what steps the school should take.
3. Report harassment to your ISP. One bullying tactic these days is to create fake profiles full of false information or inappropriate photos. “Contact the company that runs the site to have the profile taken off, and report harassment to your Internet service provider,” says Michele Ybarra, PhD, a cyberbullying researcher and president of Internet Solutions for Kids. Encourage your child to do the basics, like blocking harassers and changing usernames or addresses. Also, like Tammi, make copies to show the authorities.
4. If the bullying is physical, call the police. “The police aren’t likely to intervene unless there is a perceived physical threat,” says Simmons. If a bully alludes to assaulting or threatens to assault your child (or worse, already has), contact the authorities. Also call them if the bullying involves intimidation based on hate or bias, coercion, or any form of sexual exploitation. Finally, no matter how tempted you are, don’t confront the bully or his parents. Tempers are likely to flare, which will just make the situation worse, says Dr. Snyder. Leave it to the school or legal authorities.
Helping Kids Cope
“The psychological effects of constant bullying can be very similar to an anxiety disorder or even posttraumatic stress, leaving long-term emotional scars,” says Dr. Borba. Bullied kids can suffer stress buildup, withdrawal and more. Plus, since kids often blame themselves, falsely believing they did something wrong, their self-esteem takes a big hit. “Moving a child to a new class or a new school won’t necessarily heal the scars,” says Dr. Borba. “Depending on the intensity of the bullying, professional counseling may be best.” Typically, however, kids can bounce back if they have someone to help them with three key things—and that’s where you come in. (Photo by Shutterstock.)
Rebuild self-esteem. To counteract self-blame, remind your child that the bullying wasn’t her fault, says Simmons. “Explain that while this sort of thing does happen, it says nothing about who she is as a person.” Point out all her qualities, focusing on her character and spirit.
Create a network of friends. When Marty Wolner’s daughter became the target of mean girls at age 13, he and his wife focused on building her skills as a “floater,” someone who can move from one circle of friends to another. They encouraged her to make non-school pals through her dance and theater classes. “That way, she didn’t have to be devastated if any girls at school excluded her. She had other friends,” says Marty, a parenting coach.
Teach coping skills and assertiveness. Ignoring rude comments isn’t easy, but it is possible. One way to do it: If someone starts to insult your child, she can calmly begin texting another person. This strategy sends the message that the harasser’s words have no effect and ultimately makes him feel powerless. Sometimes that’s enough.
Many times, though, kids need to be assertive to get bullies to back down. Practice a few techniques with your child, like saying, “Leave me alone” in a strong voice. But when it comes to physical bullying, safety takes priority. Tell your child to immediately report any such incident to an adult at school. If he doesn’t, report it yourself, urges Dr. Snyder. And also inform the police.