Bullying tips for parents as children return to school

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Melissa K. Holt is an assistant professor in counseling psychology at Boston University. She has been studying bullying for 15 years and has worked closely with school districts to assess bullying and give feedback on how to combat it.

Q: As kids get ready to head back to school, what do parents need to know most about bullying right now?

A: I think, as kids go back to school… having that conversation with kids about, you know, ‘What is bullying?’ And really understanding, what is the school policy? Be familiar with that going in.

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Q: What is your definition of bullying? How can a parent gauge what is bullying and what is “kids being kids”?

A: It’s an aggressive behavior. A key feature is it’s repeated over time and there is often a power imbalance. So it might be the issue that one child is larger than another or one child is more popular than the other child. The behavior is also unwanted. There is sometimes teasing among friends. But with a bullying incident, there would be one child who said, “No, this isn’t OK with me.”

Q: Can you tell us something that may surprise some parents when it comes to bullying?

A: This is not true for all parents, but there are still some parents out there who still think bullying is just part of childhood. I would say some of them don’t understand the academic and social consequences (bullying has on) their children.

Q: What are the signs to look for that your child is being bullied?

A: Try to have an open line of communication. Some signs might be more obvious. But some kids are not going to have visible signs or come to the parent. For some kids, there will be more obvious signs (such as) they might have liked school at one point and might start to not want to go in, they might drop some grades, the child might feel more anxious or depressed.

Q: Should parents of elementary school aged kids deal with bullying differently than parents of middle school and high school aged kids?

A: I think you’re going to have a different sort of conversation as a child’s maturity increases. But on a basic level, I don’t think you’d deal with it differently. You want that basic line of communitcation, you tell them you don’t believe bullying should be allowed and if it is happening you will support them. I think kids sometimes feel that a parent would not take them seriously. I think being able to say, “If this happens to you, I will help you.”

Q: What if your child is the bully?

A: Make sure they understand that these behaviors are not appropriate. A very young child may not understand the inappropriateness of bullying others. Find out why they are bullying others. There could be lots of different reasons. Maybe your child says, “Well I’m doing it because it’s the way to fit in with boys my age.” You can work with them on more constructive ways of fitting in. Depending on what’s going on, there’s going to be consequences at school and making sure you are helping the child accept school-based consequesnces…and make sure you are implicating consequences at home. Don’t ignore it. Take it seriously.

Q: Cyberbullying and bullying-by-text is an issue in today’s society. How can a parent combat it?

A: It is certainly an issue that I didn’t face. Part of it deals with general Internet safety, so being aware of what your kids are doing online, knowing what sites they are using, implementing rules on technology in the home. Talk about what’s OK to post online and what’s OK to post online about someone else. Also, what kind of things do you not want to post about yourself online…you can post things online that can then be used against you. Making sure your kids know not to give other kids their password as well and understand how that can be used against them. They should tell you if they are being cyberbullied. Make sure they understand that if they are being victimized there won’t be these huge consequences, you want to keep them safe. They sometimes hesitate because they are afraid they won’t be able to use (their favorite technology) again.

Q: What’s your feel for how seriously New England school districts are taking bullying? Are there a lot of prevention programs in place?

A: I do know that with the new Massachusettes bullying policy, prevention is mandated. In terms of as a state policy, it’s definitely a strong policy that covers a lot of componenets of bullying. Cyberbullying is one of the components addressed in the Massachusettes policy. This could include potentially cyberbullying that occurs off of school property but affects the child’s experience within school. That’s not the case in all states but Massachusetts, in particular, does include that.

Q: Where can a parent turn for help when dealing with bullying issues with their children?

A: I think the first step would be the school and working with the school administrators. There are some fairly good online rescoures. I recommend www.stopbullying.gov, a government-run website that offers info for parents, for kids, for teachers even. It’s a helpful resource for parents.