Bullying and Mental Health: What Can Parents Do?
About one-fifth of students in the United States experience bullying. Bullying occurs in school hallways, classrooms, the lunchroom, bathrooms, or online. Many instances occur at bus stops or school-sponsored events. Bullying can take many forms, but it’s always harmful.
Bullying can make it difficult for children to build and maintain friendships, experience academic success, and feel like they belong. Bullying can cause mental health issues or exacerbate existing problems if left unchecked. The good news is that solid connections with caregivers can offset many harmful effects of bullying. Parents can help by staying informed, building a conversation about bullying in the home, and partnering with schools. Read more about how bullying affects mental health and what parents can do to help.
What is Bullying?
Bullying isn’t always observable, which can make it challenging to identify. Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as unwanted aggressive behavior involving an imbalance of power (real or perceived) that repeats or is likely to repeat. There are many types of bullying, but each type can be severe and cause lasting damage to a victim’s mental health.
- Physical bullying involves hitting, kicking, tripping, pushing, or other physical acts. If someone touches another person in an unwanted or aggressive way, the behavior repeats or is likely to be physical bullying.
- Verbal bullying includes name-calling and teasing that repeats.
- Relational/social bullying includes spreading rumors and leaving people out of group activities.
- Bullying can also include damage to the victim’s property or stealing property.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying can include any of the above types but occurs via social media, phone, testing services, online gaming platforms, and online forums. Cyberbullying involves sharing content about others that is negative, harmful, false, or mean.
Cyberbullying is a growing problem, with so many young people spending significant time on social media and gaming platforms. Once information is shared in digital formats, it is often permanent, making it difficult for young people to escape the harmful effects. It’s also harder for teachers and parents to notice cyberbullying because it usually occurs in apps or online communities that adults don’t have access to, especially among high school-aged children.
Who is Likely to Experience Bullying?
Anyone can be a victim of bullying. However, it’s most common for members of groups seen as different or strange to be picked on by peers. The most common groups who experience bullying are:
- Children who are overweight or underweight wear glasses or different clothing or are new to a school.
- Those seen as unable or unwilling to defend themselves.
- Children who are already depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem.
- Children with few friends.
- Students seen as annoying or who struggle with social skills.
The Effects of Bullying on Mental Health
The adage that if you ignore bullying, it will go away is false. Bullying often doesn’t stop without adult intervention; even when it stops, victims are left with the effects of bullying long afterward. Many people experience mental health issues as a result of bullying into adulthood. Bullying behavior harms both the victim and the perpetrator; however, this blog focuses on the mental health effects on bullying victims.
Loss of self-confidence and lower self-esteem
Often, victims of bullying experience a decline in their self-image. They may start to believe the negative things bullies say about them or feel like hiding to avoid catching the attention of potential bullies.
Negative self-talk is common among bullying victims. Negative self-talk can include thoughts about physical appearance, intellectual ability, or a person’s ability to make friends. Self-criticism can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression, and other mental health problems.
Humans are social so isolating oneself is not typical. However, children who experience bullying can avoid social situations because they fear encountering a bully. This isolation can exacerbate mental health problems.
Suicidal ideation or self-harm behaviors
Children who experience long-term bullying may be at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and self-harm behaviors. This risk can decrease if children have an otherwise supportive home and community environment.
How Do You Know If a Young Person Is Being Bullied?
Many children experience bullying and don’t report it. They keep it to themselves because they do not want to be seen as helpless or as a tattletale. They may feel embarrassed and fear judgment from adults and other students. Often, children who experience bullying are already somewhat socially isolated and feel like no one will understand. They may also fear losing friendships if they report bullying. Even if a child isn’t talking about bullying, there will often be signs they are experiencing mistreatment.
- Having injuries, they cannot explain.
- Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or other personal belongings.
- Frequently feeling ill or faking illness such as headache or stomach ache.
- Sudden changes in eating habits, including eating more or less than usual.
- Trouble sleeping or frequent waking from nightmares.
- Loss of interest in school work, declining grades, or refusal to attend school.
- Loss of friendships and avoiding social situations.
- Self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm, running away, or substance use.
How Can You Help Victims of Bullying
If possible, it’s best to stop bullying behaviors when you see them. Schools encourage students and staff to immediately report bullying behaviors, separate children involved in bullying, and model respectful behavior. Immediate intervention isn’t always possible for parents who suspect bullying based on their child’s behavior or hear about it after the fact. There are many things parents can do to support their children who experience bullying.
Know bullying laws
There is no federal law about bullying behavior, though many laws about civil rights violations overlap especially concerning cases of bullying based on race or ethnicity, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion. Most states have anti-bullying legislation that guides parents and schools in bullying prevention and managing potential bullying situations. You can find your state’s bullying laws here.
Talk to your child about bullying
Even if your child isn’t being bullied, keeping an open dialogue about how others should treat them and how they should treat others can make your child comfortable discussing difficult situations with you. Here are some tips for keeping an open dialogue with your child:
- Try asking your child about the best part of their school day and the most challenging instead of just saying, “how was your day?” Many children find it easier to open up while engaged in other activities, such as riding in the car, doing dishes, or playing a game together.
- Share your experiences with bullying with your children. Tell them what happened to you, what you saw, and how it affected you. This can assure them they aren’t alone.
- Talk about bullying in general, such as “I read an article about cyberbullying today. Have you ever heard of that?”
- If you’re concerned your child is being bullied, try mentioning a change in behavior and inviting them to talk. Something like “I noticed you aren’t spending as much time with your friends. What’s going on?” may spark a conversation. They may not open up immediately, but it’s essential to let them know you’re interested.
Report bullying to the school
Since schools are a primary site of many instances of bullying, reporting suspected bullying to your child’s school can help address the problem. It’s best to report the incident in writing and include as many details as possible about the times, places, and students involved so the school can thoroughly investigate. Schools can often even help with cyberbullying or bullying that takes place off school grounds if the people involved are members of the school community.
Therapy Can Help Children and Teens Dealing With Bullying
If your child is affected by bullying, your family may benefit from working with a therapist. Many SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services providers specialize in working with children, adolescents, and families. We can help you determine if bullying is the reason for a behavior change, work on strategies to prevent or stop bullying, and build resilience. Reach out today to schedule an appointment.