Did you know that more than 1,100,000 Canadian youth report being bullied at least once per week? Bullying is occurring once every seven minutes on the playground and once every 25 minutes in the classroom. Pink Shirt Day has passed – a day where we promote kindness and acceptance towards ourselves and others, and help spread awareness about bullying prevention in our schools and communities. While we as a society have got better at standing up for ourselves and others, there are still many victims and bystanders of bullying who stay silent for fear of being seen as a "tattle tale", fear of retribution for telling on a bully or feelings of shame for being seen as weak.
While this recent 2018 Pink Shirt Day theme focuses on cyberbullying, there are many shapes and forms of bullying that can include:
- Physical – hitting, kicking, punching, etc.
- Verbal – name calling, insults, teasing, etc.
- Social and emotional - includes behavioural actions designed to harm a child's reputation or cause humiliation, like lying and spreading rumours, playing mean jokes to embarrass or humiliate a child, social exclusion, etc.
We know that bullying can significantly impact a young person's mental health and wellbeing. And whether they're the victim or bully, it can increase their chance of developing mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression. This is especially true in the age of social media and increase in use of cellphones and devices; children and youth are even more exposed to bullying simply because they cannot simply 'turn off'. That is why BC Children's experts are providing helpful information for parents and caregivers respond to and intervene when faced with bullying.
Dr. Ashley Miller, a psychiatrist with BC Children's Hospital, shares that children who are bullied are more likely to experience increased levels of stress, feelings of isolation or loneliness, and could potentially engage in self-harm or suicidal behaviour. Parents and caregivers can watch for key signs if they suspect their child is being bullied and intervene before it turns into a serious problem.
"Some common signs that a child is being bullied can include reluctance to get up in the morning or go to school, increased anxiety or fear, lowered mood, irritability, isolating themselves or saying "they don't like school" or a certain peer," says Dr. Miller. "These signs and symptoms can vary from person to person, but it's important for parents and caregivers to know your child and ask about bullying and social exclusion if a child is showing changes in their behaviour. For example, a parent can ask more generally about how things are going with peers, whether anyone in their class or grade is being left out or picked on, and whether it's happening to them too or not."
Parents, caregivers and educators can play an important role in intervening if bullying is suspected or in the prevention of bullying in school and communities. Dr. Miller shares its important start conversations early with children about social exclusion and bullying so they can be part of the solution by making sure to include their peers as much as possible, stand up for others and know where to go for help if they need it. It's not enough to expect children and youth to solve the problem on their own if it really is bullying. It can take a higher level of intervention at the school and/or family level.
"As parents, sometimes our first response when a child talks about feeling left out or bullied can be "you're great, the other kids will recognize it when you're older" but this is not helpful because nothing is worse than feeling isolated in the present," says Dr. Miller. "Children have a desire to be understood by their parents. It's better to acknowledge their feelings, accept they are feeling left out or mistreated and offer to work on a solution together. For milder conflict situations, that may mean just listening or coaching them in resolving conflict, but for bullying, practical help and changes are almost always needed."
And just as important as it is to talk about victims of bullying, those children who bully others will also display changes in their behaviour, and are also at-risk of developing mental health challenges or engaging in risky behaviours such as substance use. Children and youth who are bullying others will tend to act more aggressively towards siblings, parents and friends, and may blame others for problems they're experiencing. Dr. Susan Baer, another psychiatrist with BC Children's Hospital, shares that if a child is bullying, it could be a sign that there is something going on their lives that may be causing this type of behaviour.
"If a child is bullying, it could be a warning sign that something else is going on in their lives," says Dr. Baer. "Maybe there are experiencing troubles with relationships with family or friends, or working through a major change in their life such as a move or their parents are separating. It's important for parents and caregivers to intervene and have a conversation with their child or youth."
Dr. Baer shares one solution is to talk about healthy relationships, and model these behaviours at home. It's also important to set clear limits, talk about conflict resolution and help children with healthy coping skills and tools to manage their emotions.
- When your child comes to you with a problem, acknowledge their feelings, accept they are feeling left out or mistreated and offer to work on a solution together.
- Talk about healthy coping skills and characteristics of healthy relationships i.e. trust, honesty, respect, etc.
- Model healthy relationships (especially between parents).
- Teach children about assertiveness and role play from a young age on how to stand up for yourself.
- Advocate for your child at school. Make sure the school understands that it's a serious problem and steps are taken to resolve it.
- Talk to your child about what might be going on in their lives.
- Listen and explore the situation to identify what might be the motivation behind the bullying.
- Talk about what bullying is, and healthy ways to express emotions and resolve conflict.
- Set limitations at home and reasonable consequences for negative behaviour.
- Consider seeking mental health supports. Bullying behaviour usually suggests that the child is suffering in ways they can't express.
Whether your child is being bullied or is bullying, we encourage parents and caregivers to reach out to school administration, educators and school counsellors for additional support. Drs. Miller and Baer also recommend parents seek help and advice from their family doctor or pediatrician to find the appropriate treatment and resources if they believe their child or youth is struggling with a mental health challenge.
There are also a variety of online resources available to support parents, educators and young people and tips on how to talk about bullying: