The Impact of Childhood Bullying and How to Talk to Kids About It

Bullying is an all-too-common experience for children and adolescents that can have both immediate and long-term, dangerous consequences if not addressed appropriately. Furthermore, children who are bullied often feel isolated in their pain. Carmen Holley, LCSW, Director of Early Childhood and Community Engagement at Lurie Children’s Center for Childhood Resilience (CCR), shares guidance on how families can approach these difficult conversations with their kids as well as respond to them.

How prevalent is bullying among children and adolescents?

Bullying in school is a huge concern among children and adolescents. According to recent data, one in five students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported being bullied in school. *

*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Why might a child bully another child?

There are several factors that might contribute to a child engaging in bullying behavior. Some children learn this behavior by observing the adults in their home and other social environments. In some instances, children who bully might have experienced bullying or even physical abuse themselves. Some children might not be able to empathize with their peers or understand the impact their behavior has on others. In other cases, a child might engage in bullying behavior to assert some power or control over another child. We might also consider issues of peer pressure or possibly an underlying challenge with emotion regulation or impulse control.

What are some signs that a child or adolescent might be being bullied?

Some children or adolescents might be hesitant to share their experiences, so it is important to be aware of the signs. For instance, we might look for emotional changes, like increases in anxiety or sadness. There might be some unexplained physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches. We might notice changes in the child's or adolescent’s social interactions, or they might avoid certain people, places, or activities. We might also notice changes in academic performance or even a fear or reluctance to attend school.

Has the rise of social media contributed to cyberbullying?

Social media allows a certain level of anonymity, and with the increasing time young people spend online, they are more exposed to bullying from people they don’t know. Cyber bullying has more than doubled over the past several years, * and it is unique in that it can be harder to detect and more difficult to identify the perpetrator. We also need to consider the permanent nature of cyber bullying. Once something is shared on social media, it can be available to many and difficult to delete.

*Source: Cyberbullying.org

What should I do if my child is being bullied? Should parents intervene and at what point?

Finding out that your child is being bullied can be an emotional experience. This reaction is completely natural because as parents and caregivers, we want to keep our children safe. If a caregiver finds out that their child is being bullied, the first thing to do is talk to the child. Ask them about the incident and be prepared to listen without judgment. It is important to get as much information as possible, such as how long the bullying has been happening and who is involved. Make sure your child knows it is not their fault and you are there to help. If the incident occurs in school, report it and request an investigation.

What should I do if my child is the bully?

The behavior must be addressed immediately, and it is important to find out why the child is engaging in that behavior. Talk to your child in a calm, supportive manner and express your concern. Help your child understand the consequences of their behavior, while setting clear expectations that this behavior is not acceptable. Also, explain the consequences if the behavior continues. Provide the child with lots of praise and positive feedback when they demonstrate behavioral changes. Furthermore, parents and caregivers can take this opportunity to engage in self-reflection, noticing their behaviors and the behaviors of other adults in the child’s life. Remember, a component of bullying might be the mirroring of the behaviors children see outside of school.

Should I teach my child to stand up against bullies?

Teaching your child to be an ally against bullying is important because we know that more than half of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes. At the same time, it's important that we teach children and teenagers how to be an ally by advocating for themselves and for others. Parents and caregivers should avoid advocating for violence or retaliation, as this can escalate the situation. Rather, teach the child how to get help in the moment and how to support the child that is being bullied. School communities often have programs and other mechanisms to teach students about being an ally against bullying. Caregivers and parents are encouraged to connect with their school community to find out what supports are available to their students.

How might bullying affect childhood development or mental health into adulthood?

Bullying can have a profound and lasting impact on physical and mental health into adulthood, and these effects can be impacted by the severity and duration of the bullying. Victims of bullying are at increased risk for developing anxiety disorder and depression. Some victims might develop PTSD, particularly if the bullying was severe or traumatic. Bullying can also impact self-perception and victims of bullying are also at significantly higher risk of self-harm or having suicidal thoughts.

What role would a school or school district play in putting a stop to bullying?

Bullying is a harmful behavior, and addressing it requires a comprehensive approach that includes students, families, teachers, schools and community members. School communities can teach students about empathy, conflict management and conflict resolution, and restorative practices. Also, intervention and support for the victim and perpetrator of the bullying behavior is key to addressing the root causes and reducing the prevalence of the behavior. Schools also have a role in setting clear expectations and community agreements between all members of the school community and should make sure that they investigate bullying incidents and prevent them from reoccurring.

Where can I get more information and additional resources?

Families can visit the sites below to learn more. They can also connect with their child’s primary care provider, school’s behavioral health team or larger school community support networks for additional support.

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