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What to do if your child is being bullied

Biff from Back to the Future. Regina George from Mean Girls. Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter. Nelson from The Simpsons. Recalling these famous fictional bullies might bring a smile to your face—especially when you think about them getting their richly deserved comeuppance. But in real life, bullying is nothing to laugh about, and usually doesn’t have a tidy or comedic ending.

     In this blog I’m going to talk a bit about the serious consequences of bullying, and what parents should do if their child is a victim of bullying. Many situations I deal with in my practice are complex and require nuanced solutions, but not this one. In fact, if you don’t have time to read to the end I can shorten my advice to just three words: get involved immediately. Here’s why.

Consequences of Bullying

Many people have encountered a bully at some point in their lives, and no one looks back on it fondly, or would care to repeat the experience. But these are more than just unhappy childhood memories. The US-based National School Safety Center calls bullying “the most enduring and underrated problem in schools.”

    The fear, pain, helplessness and isolation experienced by victims of bullying doesn’t just make for a “tough day” at school. It can have extremely serious long-term consequences. For anyone bullied as a child, the experience is seared into their memory, and the harm isn’t just anecdotal. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently did a study of 40,000 people who had adverse childhood events. It discovered that these bad experiences had negative impacts on lifelong physical and mental health, as well as education and employment opportunities. Bullying is one of the most common of these adverse childhood experiences, reported by 1 in 5 young people.

Myths About Bullying

I can think of few other negative childhood situations where the “common wisdom” is so completely wrong, and actually harmful. Even in 2022, when we’ve come so far on other mental-health issues, many myths about bullying remain. Here are just a few:

  • Being bullied builds character: WRONG
  • Kids need to stand up for themselves: WRONG
  • Just hit the bully back, but harder: WRONG
  • Kids will be kids: WRONG
  • It’s just words. They’re just teasing. Just ignore them: ALL WRONG

None of these responses stop the bullying or help your child avoid its serious negative consequences. Bullying isn’t a problem among children—it’s an issue for adults to resolve.

What To Do About Bullying 

There are times—such as organizing games on the playground—when young people benefit from parents backing off, and letting the kids sort out their own conflicts and predicaments. Bullying is the EXACT opposite. If your child is being bullied at school, he or she needs your direct and immediate help. You must go to the school and strenuously advocate for your scared and hurt child. Don’t hold back. Turn it up to 11.

   In recent decades many schools have professed a zero-tolerance policy on bullying, but in practice that’s often not the case. In my experience, how seriously a school takes bullying is more up to the individual administrators. And unfortunately, school staff would often prefer to sidestep or overlook this uncomfortable issue. The causes of bullying and the situations that create a school bully are complex and nuanced. But as the parent of a child being bullied, that is, to be blunt, not your problem. The school is responsible for the physical and emotional safety of your child. If the institution won’t take it seriously, you must demand that it does—and you’re 100% within your rights to do so.

Practically speaking, that means talking to the principal, vice-principal, school social worker and anyone else in the system you can meet with. You should also document the incidents of bullying, so you have a record showing the pattern of abuse, and its seriousness. I also advise parents to express their concerns to the school in writing, to create a paper trail. All of these measures apply pressure to the school to resolve the issue—sooner rather than later. Speed is also important, since we also know from research that the longer bullying continues, the longer it takes the victim to recover. But the good news is that with support from parents, school resources and mental health professionals, children who are bullied should be able to resume their normal lives, healthy and happy.

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