Bullying: Coping with an age-old problem

Anyone who’s ever been a victim of bullying never forgets what it feels like. It’s a negative experience that can have a lasting effect on a child. The thought of our own child being bullied at school, on the play ground or in cyberspace is a huge concern to parents everywhere. The reality of this age-old problem is that as long as there are kids there will be bullies. With this in mind, it’s important for parents to teach their children how to build relationships and deal with bullying before they become adults who bully or who are victims of bullying.

What is bullying?

Bullying is a conscious, wilful and deliberate form of aggression that is intended to harm another person. While bullying usually starts off with small actions like name calling, it can easily escalate. Bullying comes in many forms and is not always obvious right away. It is not to be confused with light-hearted, teasing by a friend or someone that has no intention of hurting another person’s feelings.  Examples of bullying may include:

  • physical abuse, like punching, pinching or constant physical harassment
  • threats of physical abuse, like spreading false rumours, showing weapons, or threatening to hurt someone
  • verbal abuse, like name calling, spreading rumours and gossiping
  • social abuse, like being excluded from a game and scapegoating
  • sexual abuse, like unwanted sexual contact
  • cyber bullying, like being threatened, harassed, humiliated or embarrassed using the internet, interactive and digital technologies or through text messaging on mobile devices.

Who is involved in bullying?

According to the 2005/2006 Healthy Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, 36 per cent of young people in Canada have been a victim of bullying and 20 per cent of Canadian students report being both bullies and victims. For boys, bullying peaks in grade nine, while it peaks for girls in grades seven through nine.  Both girls and boys are equally involved in bullying however, girls may bully differently than boys. Girls will more often use indirect forms of bullying such as verbal or social forms. An example of this form of bullying is gossip.

In most bullying incidents there are three groups involved:

  • The bully
  • The person or people who are being bullied
  • The people who watch as bystanders

Bystanders encourage or reward the bully for their behaviour by laughing, participating or acting as an audience, and by doing nothing to stop the act of bullying.

What are some of the effects of bullying on children?

Studies show, both bullies and their victims are at greater risk for developing emotional problems later in life. Possible effects of bullying include:

  • Low self-esteem: A child’s low feeling of self-worth can get in the way of their social skills and happiness into adult life.
  • Guilt: Bullies may feel guilty for their actions later in life. Similarly, bystanders may feel guilty that they encouraged the bully, or did nothing to stop it.
  • The inability to deal with problems: The bully uses his or her aggression as a crutch to solve other problems (for example, low self-esteem). By allowing bullying behaviour to continue, the bullying child doesn’t properly learn how to deal with his or her problems or how to interact properly with others.
  • Depression and being excluded from opportunities to grow: Childhood is a time to learn, grow and discover activities that will help children in adult life. Bullying can seriously impair a child’s ability to participate, to learn, or to enjoy school or social situations.
  • Suicide: In extreme cases, a child that is a victim of bullying may decide that death is better than being continually bullied.

Signs that your child is being bullied

Even if your child lives within a supportive family with good, open communication, he or she may feel reluctant to discuss the fact they are being bullied. Why? For one thing, your child may feel embarrassed, unsure how to communicate what’s happening or scared of retaliation from the bully.  In some instances your child may feel that the bullying is somehow his or her fault or that you will not take the problem seriously. In response, your child may become reluctant to go to school (or the location where the bullying is taking place), may develop trouble with schoolwork, or become withdrawn, anxious, angry, or depressed.

What parents can do about bullying?

If your child is involved somehow in bullying, as a parent, your first step is to assess the situation and determine exactly what is happening to your child. Anti-bullying strategies recommend parents take action by:

  • Making sure your child understands what bullying is and where friendly teasing stops and taunting and bullying begins.
  • Teaching your child not to be a bystander. Bullies rarely work well without an audience, and most kids don’t like to watch someone being picked on. If kids join together to stand up against a bully, the bully will lose his or her sense of power and most likely stop.
  • Teaching your child the importance of standing up for and helping any child who is being bullied. If they are afraid, teach your child to immediately find an adult for help. 
  • Giving your child ideas for coping with bullying.  Help them understand the importance of walking away from a bully if the situation allows. Providing them with the language and actions through demonstrations and role-playing at home, so they can appear more confident when confronted by a bully.
  • Talking to a health professional about next steps if your child needs help with depression or anxiety.
  • Recognizing that often children who are bullied won’t tell adults because they’re ashamed of themselves and what’s happening or they’re afraid of retaliation from the bully.  Talk about bullying and what to do if it happens.  Teach children to tell an adult right away.
  • Letting any child who is being bullied know that they are not alone and that you are there to help.  Likewise, let child who is a bully know that you care and will help them too.
  • Stressing to other adults, how important it is to report all forms of bullying. Bullying can only continue if no-one intervenes.
  • Involving everyone. To be effective, anti-bullying strategies must involve: teachers, school authorities, parents, kids, and the community, if necessary. Even television and popular culture play a role in encouraging or discouraging bullying. Talk to your child’s school about the problem and about what they are doing about bullying. Community anti-bullying programs can be effective.
  • Providing effective, learning consequences for bullies. Singling out or “protecting” the child who is a victim of being bullied won’t really help to solve the problem.

For more information read the Health Behaviour for School-Aged Children bullying and fighting factsheet.

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