The start of a new school year can be exciting, but for some students it comes with fear and anxiety — especially for those who are victims of bullying.
According to Virginia Tech psychologist Rosanna Breaux, about 1 in 4 children experience bullying in elementary school. “The hurtful behavior can happen in a variety of ways — physical, verbal, or social,” says Breaux. “It can happen face-to-face or through technology, like social media or while playing video games.”
Breaux says it’s important for parents and schools to be aware of the risk factors that can lead a child to become a bully or be the victim of bullying, and to recognize that children can be both a bullying perpetrator and victim. These risk factors include:
- Socioeconomic status, specifically family financial strain, food insecurity, being on government assistance
- Poor inhibition
- Difficulty making friends
- Developmental delays
- Intellectual disability
- Lack of school engagement
- Poor self-regulation
Research on how parents can help children and adolescents who are being bullied is limited.
“School bullying is often a group behavior that is maintained by peers who silently support the bullying or are reluctant to defend victims, making it hard for teachers or parents to be able to effectively intervene,” says Breaux. “Many bullied children and adolescents are reluctant to ask for help, believing that adults won’t help or can’t help, and that ‘help’ will make matters worse.”
However, there are several things that Breaux says parents and schools can do to help prevent and limit the negative effects of being bullied.
- Look for signs that your child might be struggling with peer relationships at school. This includes a drop in grades, reluctance to go to school, and limited desire to spend time with peers outside of school.
- Encourage children to stay away from places where bullying happens. Most bullying happens when adults aren’t around. For example, if your child is getting bullied in the middle or back of the bus, encourage them to sit towards the front, where the driver can more easily see/hear what is going on.
- For adolescents, encourage your child to talk to an adult they trust, which doesn’t have to be a parent. It is important that adolescents don’t keep their feelings inside. Telling someone can help adolescents feel less alone, and can help them make a plan to stop the bullying.
- Consider setting limits and monitoring your child’s online activity. Use parental control apps (e.g., AURA, bark) to limit time online and to monitor cyberbullying. School-age children and adolescents generally should not be spending more than 2 hours per day online, except for homework.
- Help encourage healthy ways to cope. This includes problem solving ways to respond in the face of bullying, such as being assertive (e.g., giving a clever comeback, making a joke out of it) or walking away. There is research suggesting that openly showing signs of being hurt by the bullying such as crying or withdrawing can lead to even more bullying. Helping children and adolescents remain calm in the moment and process their feelings afterwards can be helpful.
- It is important that your child feels heard and supported. Treat their concerns as a serious matter and validate emotions. This does not mean that parents should act hastily in an effort to help (e.g., calling the parents of the alleged bullies). Focus first on whether your child feels safe and whether they can safely return to school.
- Contact the school. If you are concerned about your child’s safety, request that school staff develop a plan for keeping your child safe and preventing bullying from happening in the future. It is a good idea to have regular contact with your child’s school to ensure the plan is being used and is working effectively.