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Kids & Bullying: The Warning Signs, Effects, & Prevention

Written by Sara Langer

Photography by Photographed by Nicki Sebastian

Bullying, unfortunately, can be a pretty common part of the childhood (and adult) experience. It’s now being recognized as a “serious public health problem,” while more anti-bullying organizations and campaigns exist than ever before. The increased access to technology and social media has created a new breed of bullying and the research hasn’t really been able to give us the straight facts because bullying is hard to measure. Lines have been drawn and lists have been made that point to risk factors and indicators of who is more likely to bully or be bullied, but ultimately it can happen to anyone, anywhere, no matter their background. That being said, there has been significant research, time, and effort put into prevention and understanding the complexity behind bullying.

For school-aged children, bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. The aggregate of current research and recent surveys indicates that between 25%-30% of American students have experienced bullying, most commonly during the middle school years.

StopBullying.org states: “There is not a single profile of a young person involved in bullying. Youth who bully can be either well connected socially or marginalized, and may be bullied by others as well. Similarly, those who are bullied sometimes bully others.”

Types of Bullying and Where is Happens
Bullying can look different depending on specific circumstances, but generally there are three types of bullying; verbal, social (or relational), and physical. Verbal bullying is saying or writing hurtful things, by teasing or name-calling, threatening to cause harm, sexual harassment, or taunting. Social bullying aims to hurt or destroy someone’s reputation or relationships. It can be harder to recognize and it often happens behind someone’s back through spreading rumors or excluding someone from the larger group. Physical bullying is anything that involves physical contact like hitting, kicking, or pushing. Bullying typically happens at school or just outside the school grounds and more commonly today, it’s happening online. But it can also happen in any place that kids (and adults) gather and have community.

Cyber Bullying
Cyber bullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person and includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior. About 15% of 6-12 graders in a 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control reported experiencing cyber bullying, including nearly 50% of students who identify as LGBTQ who reported being the target of cyber bullying in the last 12 months. Because cyber bullying is not as overt and obvious, parents need to be diligently monitoring their children and teens when it comes to their online behavior.

Warning Signs
While not all children demonstrate specific signs of being bullied, there are certain behaviors that may trigger a red flag for you as a parent. StopBullying.gov shares some of the most common warning signs that a child is being bullied. These include unexplainable injuries, lost or destroyed belongings, frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness, changes in eating habits, difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares, declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school, sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem, or self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide. You should also know there are signs to pay attention to that may indicate your child is acting as the bully. Signs a child may be bullying include getting into physical or verbal fights, having friends who bully others, acting increasingly aggressive, not accepting responsibility for their actions, being competitive, and worrying about their reputation or popularity. Signs of cyberbullying vary, but may include being emotionally upset during or after using the Internet or the phone, being very secretive or protective of one’s digital life, wanting to stop using the computer or cellphone, being nervous or jumpy when getting an instant message, text, or email, and avoiding discussions about computer or cellphone activities.

The Effects of Bullying
Bullying can affect everyone—those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Bullying is linked to many negative outcomes including impacts on mental health, substance use, and suicide. Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, social, and mental health issues. They are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. The affects of these issues may continue into adulthood.  According to StopBullying.gov, kids who bully others can also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood and are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults. They may also engage in early sexual activity and be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults.

The Effects of Being a Bystander
Kids who witness bullying are going to experience some of the same things as both those who are bullies and those who are bullying. Children who stand by as an outside observer, assist, or reinforce the bullying behavior, are just as much a part of the “bully culture.” Bullying is not just a simple interaction between two people. There are often group dynamics at play. Being someone who defends or stands up to a bully can have a significant positive impact in the moment, often putting bullying behavior to a halt. But many children are unsure of how to step in or they are scared of the consequences of getting involved. This is why it is important to discuss prevention and standing up to bullies with all children, not just those who we perceived as “at risk.”

The Link Between Bullying and Suicide
While the news headlines are quick to link bullying and suicide, and there is no doubt that there is some relationship between the two, it is a complex and layered matter. The CDC’s recent publication, The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide and What it Means for Schools, states: “Many media reports oversimplify this relationship, insinuating or directly stating that bullying can cause suicide. The facts tell a different story. In particular, it is not accurate and potentially dangerous to present bullying as the ’cause’ or ‘reason’ for a suicide, or to suggest that suicide is a natural response to bullying. We recommend media not use the word ‘bully-cide.’ Research indicates that persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior. The vast majority of young people who are bullied do not become suicidal. Most young people who die by suicide have multiple risk factors. Some youth, such as LGBTQ youth, are at increased risk for suicide attempts even when bullying is not a factor.”

Ways to Prevent or Stop Bullying
Adults are key players in preventing bullying. Parents, teachers, and other adults working with youth need to be well versed in the nuances of bullying behavior and how it can be prevented or stopped. First off, both kids and adults really need to understand what bullying is and how to identify it. Talk with your children about what they should do if they are being bullied or they see someone being bullied. The best thing they can do is to stop, take a deep breath, and respond calmly and quietly. If talking is too difficult or scary, tell them they can just turn around and walk away. Make sure they know that they should talk to an adult they trust without worrying about getting in trouble or repercussions. They can make a plan with a trusted adult to work together to stop the bullying. Encourage children to stand up for themselves and for others if they witness bullying. If they witness bullying, they should calmly tell the bully to stop what they are doing. If the bully threatens them, they should turn around, walk away, and find an adult. Always reinforce the fact that they will not get in trouble for telling an adult what they witnessed. They can go out of their way to be kind to the child who is being bullied, stand next to them, or offer to go play or go for a walk in order to get away from the situation. Make sure you are taking the time to talk with your children. Dig deeper than just “How was your day?” Be open with them about your own fears and insecurities and bad parts of your day and it will help them confide in you. Don’t ignore warning signs your notice. Encourage your children to take part in activities and groups that fit with their interests, where they can gain confidence and meet others with the same interests. And make sure you are always modeling respect and kindness. So much of how we treat others comes from how the adults in our lives treat those around them. Children are sponges, they can just as easily absorb kindness as they can cruelty.

For more information, check out StopBullying.gov and KindCampaign.

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