Turning the Tide on Bullying

It's always painful when parents learn their child is being bullied. Harm inflicted by a bully's abuse can lead to bruised feelings on the surface, but can also produce effects that run far deeper.

"Bullying has been brought to light more frequently in recent years," says Dr. Pamela Dawson, principal and director of special education at Great Circle Academy in Lebanon, Mo. "This may be due to factors like social media, wide accessibility of news outlets and anti-bullying initiatives implemented by school districts." She says bullying has become an even more serious topic as educators and counselors are seeing young people becoming suicidal or self-harming at younger ages, often in connection with bullying.

"In young children, bullying can lead to social isolation and distancing, which may develop into deeply rooted psychological issues in later years," Dawson says. "The victims of bullying may even become bullies themselves as a coping mechanism."

Signs that a child is being bullied can include passive behaviors like shutting down emotionally, isolating and acting withdrawn, or more active ones like angry behavior at home or overreacting to normal situations. Parents also may notice a loss of appetite, unexplained injury, or a lack of participation in activities that the child normally enjoys.

"Children being bullied may believe they are too weak to deal with the situation, and they may even feel shame and start blaming themselves," Dawson explains.

These behaviors signal the need to have a constructive conversation with your child. "Communication and support at home are the first steps in preventing further abuse," Dawson says. "If your child is not willing to talk about the reasons behind these behaviors, it may be time to seek counseling. Of course, any self-harming actions and suicidal statements must always be taken seriously."

Parents must model appropriate relationship behavior themselves, Dawson says. "Children who see others bullying people will pick up on these actions," she explains. "Be aware of this and keep the lines of communication open. Discussions should include whether the child knows what bullying is and why it happens. Discuss what kinds of mean, angry words can be hurtful, and talk about how to avoid bullying situations if possible. Be sure to stay calm and use reassuring language."

Dawson says it is helpful to consider what challenges may be at the root of a bully’s behavior, because they may have been victims themselves. "Factors behind bullying include learned behavior from the home environment, personal insecurity, and past or present trauma," she says. "The instigator may be seeking help or attention and using aggressive behavior as a way of getting it."

Dawson says students at Great Circle are taught how to express feelings appropriately and in healthy ways, Dawson says. "Our counselors and therapists use evidence-based practices like Trauma-Informed Care and Circle of Control, and we teach positive affirmation, coping skills, self-care and self-advocacy," she says. "Most importantly, we show kids how to use their voices, to let adults know when there is a problem, and to understand the feelings behind aggressive behavior at school. Kids need to know that it is never okay to bully, and it is also never okay to be bullied."