In the past, bullying was considered an unpleasant, but common part of growing up. Today, that’s no longer the case as medical experts recognize the serious impacts bullying can have on both victims and those doing the bullying.
For teenagers, technology and social media can escalate bullying quickly—often without parents being aware of the harassment. Twenty-two percent of children ages 12 to 18 said they were bullied during the 2012-13 school year.
“A teen who experiences headaches or stomach aches, has unexplained injuries or bruises, or avoids school may be the victim of bullying and need a parent to intervene,” says Anne Clarkson, digital parenting education specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “A rapid decline in grades is another indication of bullying, as is a teen abruptly dropping activities he or she enjoyed or demonstrating a markedly increased desire for isolation.”
Bullying or drama?
Clarkson says that when a parent becomes concerned that a child is being bullied, the parent should listen to the child and calmly determine whether the situation is really bullying or typical teenage drama. “Teens engage in unkind jockeying for status as they mature and develop their understanding of social relationships, which can lead to conflict and hurt feelings. Teen drama involves both parties behaving poorly and tends to be a one-time-event while bullying is one person causing harm repeatedly.”
Teens can usually handle drama by themselves, perhaps with some advice, according to Becky Mather of the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board. “Parents can strategize and role play with their children on how to deal with challenging situations,” she says. “But in the case of bullying, a parent or someone else with power must intercede and make a significant change in the dynamics. Teens cannot handle bullying themselves without great risk of immediate or lasting physical or emotional damage.”
Mather points out that bullies themselves also are suffering. Signs a child may be bullying others include having friends who are bullies, fighting, getting into trouble at school, suddenly having new things or more money, or always blaming others for problems.
Neither bullies nor their victims are likely to ask for help, so adults must be alert for signs, Mather says. “If a parent becomes aware that their child is being harassed, do not contact a bully’s parent. Parents often get offended and defensive when their children are accused. Bullies may have learned about physical violence from their parents, so adults do not want to put themselves in unsafe situations—or jeopardize the bully’s safety. Also, stepping onto someone else’s property could lead to an arrest for trespassing.”
What can parents do?
When bullying occurs, parents and teens should keep detailed records of incidents, including participants, dates and locations; copies of online interactions; and notes on contacts with authorities, advises Clarkson. “When the bullying occurs at a school, parents should learn about the school anti-bullying policy, and arrange to meet face-to-face with a principal, teachers and possibly a guidance counselor. During the meeting, remain calm and matter-of-fact while relaying your child’s story.”
Following the meeting, the parent should write down everything discussed in the meeting and follow up with a thank-you note to everyone who attended. The note should summarize what was said and agreed on at the meeting. If the harassment does not stop, parents should be prepared to go to the next level of authority — to the superintendent and, eventually, the school board.
Parents should never encourage or allow authorities to conduct a meeting between their child and the bully. “This can reinforce the intimidation,” Clarkson says.
If the bullying takes place at an organized activity, parents should consult the adults in charge. If harassment occurs in public, outside of school or a supervised activity, parents should contact police to intercede. If necessary, parents should obtain a restraining order.
Help is available
Help is available for parents and teens dealing with the harmful impact of bullying. Mental health professionals can help both bullied teens and those who bully to cope and rebuild their self-esteem and sense of safety. Teens can benefit from a friend who has also experienced bullying. Parents can find resources from other parents of bullied teens and through organizations such as gay-straight alliances. UW-Extension also has resources for parents and others on the Extension Responds: Anti-Bullying website.