If your child has come to you and told you they’re being bullied, or even if you just suspect that your kid is being bullied, you might feel at a loss for what to do. How can parents support their children without undermining their child’s own coping and problem-solving skills?
In this article, we answer that question and more. We review some of the research and definitions of bullying, and talk about some of the mental health impacts of bullying. Read on to learn more.
What Counts as Bullying?
The American Psychological Association’s bullying definition is to “intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort” through physical, emotional, or interpersonal means.
Bullying can happen in school, during after-school sports or other activities, or even in online environments.
One of the important things to note about the bullying definition above is the emphasis on intention and repetition. If someone causes injury or discomfort to your child by accident or as a singular occurrence, that wouldn’t necessarily be considered bullying.
Bullying is targeted and repeated harassment, usually perpetrated by someone with more power or status than the person they’re targeting.
Impacts of Bullying
Bullying can have a lot of negative impacts on kids, especially when it goes on for many months or even years. Being a victim of bullying can create chronic stress for a child. Chronic stress can put a child into “fight or flight” mode, leaving them on edge and potentially putting their health at risk.
Bullying can also negatively impact a child or teen’s schoolwork. Kids who are bullied are more likely to have lower grades and are more likely to skip school. Especially when bullying takes place at school, this can create an environment that doesn’t support a child in being their best selves.
Bullying and Youth Mental Health
Bullying can also be detrimental to child and youth mental health. Research finds that kids who experience bullying are more likely to experience depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and low self-esteem. They’re also more likely to show more distress and anxiety symptoms about attending school.
There are some signs you can look out for to see if your child’s or youth's mental health is being impacted. Some warning signs to look out for include:
Distress, panic, or worry about attending school
Avoidance of particular situations or people
Lower self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness
Declining grades or loss of interest in school
Supporting Your Child
As parents, we never want our children to experience distress or turmoil. It can be especially challenging to support your child when they’re being bullied at school or in another environment outside the home.
Thankfully there are a few things you can do to support your child if they’re being bullied. Consider trying some of the options described below.
It’s important for children to feel like they have a safe space to go to for support without fear of judgment. If your child comes to you and tells you that they’re being bullied, you might feel an urge to step in and immediately start problem-solving the situation. Unfortunately, though well-intentioned, this can actually undermine your child’s problem-solving skills.
There’s a time and a place for problem-solving, but right now the most important thing that you can do is listen. Show empathy and caring for your child, and resist the urge to swoop in with potential solutions and actions.
If and when your child is ready, try talking through different ways that they can respond to a child who is bullying them. Practice different possible scenarios, such as deflecting with humor, staying neutral and not reacting to the bully’s insults, or just walking away. You can even roleplay different scenarios with your child to help them practice these potential responses.
Being the victim of repeated bullying can severely impact a child’s self-esteem, which can in turn make it harder for them to act or seek help. Encourage your child to take action against bullying, whether they are the victim of a bully or they observe others being bullied. This will help them build their confidence and may also stop the bullying.
You can also encourage your child to explore hobbies and interests outside of school. Support your child in developing mastery of a new skill or activity. This can help boost their self-esteem and widen their social circle, increasing their social support networks and building new interpersonal skills.
Step in when needed
Sometimes bullying is so severe or persistent that a parent has to step in and do something about it. If your child’s bullying is severe, or you’ve already tried the suggestions above, it may be time for you to step in and intervene. Reach out to your child’s school, coach, or other authority figure in the setting where your child is being bullied.
You can also try reaching out to the parent(s) of the child who’s bullying your child. This approach tends to work best when the other child’s parent is cooperative in wanting to work with you to stop the bullying. It’s important to approach the other parent collaboratively and without blaming them for the bullying. Instead, ask how you can work together to help your children to get along better.
If you have concerns about the impacts of bullying on youth mental health for your child, it can be helpful to talk to a therapist. A therapist can work with you and your child to best identify what your child needs, whether that’s a structured treatment plan to target depression and anxiety symptoms, interpersonal skill-building, or something else entirely.
A therapist can also work with your child to help develop coping strategies and problem-solving skills, making them stronger and more resilient!
Therapy for Bullying
At Westmoreland Psychotherapy Associates, our child and youth mental health specialists are trained in supporting children and teens through many different kinds of life challenges, including bullying. Our therapists can work with your child to build their confidence, lower their depression or anxiety symptoms, and develop positive coping strategies that they can carry forward for many years to come.
If you believe that your child would benefit from speaking to a therapist, or you just want to explore this option, reach out to us today. Our experts can partner with you to support your child in becoming their best self. Contact us now to get started.