Bullying is all over the news these days. Tragic stories of children taking their own lives after being systematically bullied by classmates at school, and in cyberspace, strikes fear into the hearts of any parent, myself included. As the mother of young children, I want to prepare them and myself for the challenges they may face socially in school, so I turned to Dr. Shefali Tsabary, a New York-based clinical psychologist and author of The Conscious Parent, for advice.
The basics of bullying
“Bullying involves an act where a person perceives another as weak and targets them in a systematic manner,” says Tsabary, who describes bullying as “an epidemic” and recommends that parents do what they can to help their children build self-esteem to counteract a possible threat.
Tsabary notes that while a four-year-old might say something unkind to a peer or show off, few would do so with the intention to systematically bring down another child.
“However, once children reach elementary school age, the more intentional targeting begins, and this risk exponentially rises as the grades get higher,” she cautions. “In order for a child to be inoculated against bullying, they need to feel empowered to speak their authentic voice and encouraged to stand up for themselves.”
Tsabary recommends that parents help their children practice speaking up for themselves in a respectful way at home from a young age, so that they are prepared to do so among peers and school staff as early as preschool.
How can a parent tell his or her child is being bullied?
Tsabary says withdrawal from school activities or a group of friends, as well as physical changes like trouble sleeping or a drastic change in eating habits, could be signs that a child is being bullied.
“Parents need to take heed of these sudden shifts in attitude, mood and physiological well-being and look to the reasons for these changes,” says Tsabary. “If a child is actually facing bullying, it is imperative that parents monitor the situation closely.”
How should a parent handle a bullying situation?
“If it is going beyond the norm, then systemic intervention is warranted,” Tsabary explains. “If it stays within the realm of childhood jousting and peer rivalry, then the child who is the target needs to be reminded that those who bully are insecure themselves and, in fact, deeply unhappy children.”
Parents need to try to be both supportive and proactive, suggests Tsabary, by contacting the school counselor or principal for an intervention. “Voicing one’s boundary against bullying in public sends a strong message and can help prevent such situations in the future,” she says.
It can be challenging to engage with the parent of the other child or children, since everyone is coming from a different place in terms of self-esteem and emotional health.
The realm of cyberbullying
In the case of cyberbullying, Tsabary notes, “It is different in that it appears to allow the bully to feel freer due to the apparent anonymity of it. Parents need to closely monitor their children’s social media sites until they feel their child is fully prepared to handle the ills that it potentially brings.”
Tsabary’s comments were helpful to me as a parent. They helped me worry less about the occasional hurt feelings my son experiences in preschool and focus more on how I can help him express himself to friends and adults. I already look for ways in which I can build his self-esteem, through sports, music, art, and friendships, so I’ll continue to cultivate that. And should he face a bully, I feel more prepared to help him handle it.
“Parents need to arm their children with tools on how to identify a bully and ward them off,” says Tsabary, whose next book, Out of Control, examines ways in which parents use the concepts of “teaching” and “discipline” to bully their own children. “They need to know where to draw the line and when to seek help.”
About the author: Katie Ginder-Vogel is a freelance writer and editor based in Madison, WI. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in English from Stanford University. An avid runner, hiker, and swimmer, Katie writes regularly about health and wellness. She has two children and a dog, who keep her company on the trail, on the road, and in the pool.