“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Most adults remember this saying and the seemingly harmless teasing in the schoolyard it likely accompanied. What was once viewed as a “rite of passage,” or part of growing up, has today become much more harmful, even deadly.

Sadly, a nationwide survey reports that one in four children in grades six through 10 experience bullying. It is estimated that 10 percent of students who drop out of school do so because of repeated bullying. No child is immune – kids of every race, gender, size, grade and socio-economic sector are impacted. The effects of bullying are significant and alarming.

There are three victims in this scenario – the target of the bullying, the bully and those who witness the bullying. A child who bullies most often is a victim of neglect or abuse, lacks appropriate social skills and/or suffers from low self-esteem. A bully is frustrated and doesn’t know how to express emotions, particularly anger, in an appropriate manner, and will often target younger children in anger and frustration or to get attention from peers. Those who are bullied often have few friends and are easily intimidated.

At any age, bullying can take several forms.

  • Physical bullying may include hitting, punching, kicking or physical harm, as well as destruction of a child’s property.
  • Verbal bullying includes teasing, name-calling, taunting, racial slurs, as well as spreading gossip or rumors.
  • Cyberbullying includes harassing emails, instant messages and texts, as well as threatening blogs and posts to others.

As a parent, what can you do to help your child respond to bullying?

  • Talk to your child every day. Learn their routines and how they spend time at recess, lunch and between classes. Encourage discussion about these times – who do they sit with on the bus and at lunch? Candidly talk about what they see and hear at these times.
  • Get involved at school. Many schools rely on parent volunteers to help at lunch, recess and before, during and after classes. Research shows that nearly 70 percent of bullying happens when adults are not present.  Many schools have adopted anti-bullying curriculums as a method of deterrence. Talk to school officials and find out how you can help.
  • Be a role model. As adults, we all get upset about traffic, slow service at a restaurant, or a long line at the grocery store. When you speak to or make a comment about another adult in a mean or abusive way, you’re teaching your child that bullying is okay.  Be particularly aware to not point out differences in others based on race, religion, special needs, appearance, gender or economic status. Try to instill a sense of empathy for those who are different.
  • Take notice, and give your child a positive stroke. Talk to children about their feelings. When conflicts arise in your own life, be open about frustrations and how you cope with your feelings.
  • Learn the signs. Frequent loss of belongings, complaints of stomach aches or headaches, avoiding recess or activities, change in before- or after-school routines and withdrawing from social situations are all signs of being bullied.
  • Teach your child what to do if they witness bullying. Kids who speak up or take action can have a positive influence on the situation. Encourage children to talk to an adult about what they see.
  • Help your child understand cyberbullying. Making fun of others in chat rooms, on social networks or in texts is not acceptable. People should be treated online the same way they should be treated in person. Talk to your child about rumors, and help them understand how hurtful a rumor could be.
  • Encourage your child to expand his/her network of friends. Help your child make an effort to include those who are new to their school, neighborhood, place of worship or team. Encourage children to meet and ride the bus together, or to establish a routine meeting place for lunch or recess.

Finally, know when to seek professional help. Early intervention can help prevent lasting problems such as depression, anxiety or low self-esteem. Seek professional or school counseling if fear or anxiety becomes overwhelming.

Written by Gabriel Welcher & Jean Mirando. Gabriel and Jean are Parent Project Facilitators at John Muir Health Behavioral Health Center, which provides a full range of inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services for patients of all ages. For more information, call 925-674-4100.  To learn more about classes and events at John Muir Health, call 925-941-7900 or go online at www.johnmuirhealth.com/classes.