“Mom, Dad, this kid keeps picking on me at school.”
Perhaps nothing is more troubling than learning your child is being bullied.
But worried mothers and fathers can help their children fend off negative, overbearing behavior by teaching them the right tools, whether they are in elementary, middle or high school, experts say.
“Parents have to prepare their children for dealing with bullies,” says Kim Mazauskas, a bullying prevention, intervention and compliance coordinator with the School District of Palm Beach County’s Safe Schools Department. “Teach them to speak up for themselves or others. Ask them what they would do if someone asked them to move out of that seat. Give them some prepared comebacks that are assertive but not aggressive.”
Parents should advise their child to talk to a trusted adult at school, or parents should contact the teacher or principal, Mazauskas says. They also can initiate a formal complaint on the school district’s website.
“We take all complaints seriously, as we don’t want things to escalate,” Mazauskas says. “We’ll launch an investigation, and someone will call back. Part of our strategic plan is to create a safe learning environment.”
Forms of bullying vary by age, Mazauskas says. In elementary school, a child repeatedly may be mean to others. In middle school, desire for popularity or group acceptance arises, so children may be ostracized or made fun of for not belonging. In high school, it’s all about who belongs to which peer group.
“High school is also where most of the cyberbullying takes place,” she says. “Social media is big. Parents should make sure their child is participating in activities they enjoy with students who have similar interests. Students should form relationships with lots of people from different backgrounds.”
A key part of bullying prevention is encouraging children to stand up not only for themselves, but also for others, experts say.
“There is a ton of research about the bystander effect,” says Stephanie Larsen, a clinical psychologist with Palm Beach Behavioral Health & Wellness in Jupiter. “If a bully sees others helping the victim, the bullying is likely to stop. If others just say something, it helps.”
Parents, students and others should focus on preventing bullying, she says. One out of every three children is bullied at some point, but 80 percent of parents don’t think it happens to their child.
On social media, 88 percent of people witness bullying but don’t speak out, she says.
“There are lots of theories, chiefly self-preservation,” Larsen says. “People think, ‘I’m not going to get involved because I don’t want it to happen to me.’ ”
Bullying can be verbal, physical, relational (excluded from groups) or take place online, she says. The hardest thing for parents is learning how to spot it happening to their child.
“Parents need to talk to their children; ask questions,” says Jan Bogie, a licensed mental health counselor and vice president of programs at the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County. “Does their child appear to be sad, depressed or lonely? Does their child appear to be isolating himself or herself by no longer wanting to go to soccer practice, school or to dance class?”
Parents also should look for other classic signs of bullying, including behavioral changes such as less attention to academics and concerning comments from teachers. The biggest change: suddenly using drugs or alcohol, Bogie says.
She says parents can call the association’s helpline at 561-801-4357, where they will be directed to resources for help.
“Do they need a psychiatrist? Do they need to get in touch with a support group? Does their child need counseling?” Bogie says. “We do screenings at a doctor’s office, explain the results and help the parents with whatever they’re looking for. We have a database of over 500 caregivers.”
LGBTQ students are particularly vulnerable to bullying, says Ryanmarie Rice, chief of staff at Compass Community Center in Lake Worth. The center specializes in providing support, education and empowerment programs for the LGBTQ community.
“We try to give [young people] the tools to build up their self-esteem to deal with bullying and homophobia,” Rice says. “We want them to be confident and to live true to themselves and not to outside judgment or influences.”
Compass provides a safe place for LGBTQ youths to talk, share experiences and support each other.
“Every kind of child could be bullied at some point, but it’s more about teaching compassion and self-esteem at a young age,” Rice says. “We need to change the culture and how people treat each other so no child becomes a bully in the first place.”SOURCES:
- Jan Bogie, vice president of programs, Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County
- Stephanie Larsen, clinical psychologist, Palm Beach Behavioral Health & Wellness
- Kim Mazauskas, bullying prevention, intervention and compliance coordinator, the School District of Palm Beach County
- Ryanmarie Rice, chief of staff, Compass Community Center