Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Mean kids aren’t just a middle-school problem. The trouble has trickled to the youngest grades. Learn how to spot it — and how to protect your child.
Bullying, the act of willfully causing harm to others through verbal harassment (teasing and name-calling), physical assault (hitting, kicking, and biting), or social exclusion (intentionally rejecting a child from a group), used to be something parents didn’t need to worry about until their child was a tween. Now it has trickled down to the youngest students. In fact, some research shows that tormenting has become even more common among 2- to 6-year-olds than among tweens and teens. “Young kids are mimicking the aggressive behavior they see on TV shows, in video games, and from older siblings,” explains Susan Swearer, Ph.D., coauthor of Bullying Prevention & Intervention.
Overall, bullying in schools has become a national epidemic. A study published in the Journal of School Health found that 19 percent of U.S. elementary students are bullied. And each day, more than 160,000 kids stay home from school because they fear being bullied, according to a survey by the National Education Association, a public-education advocacy group.
“Being bullied can have traumatic consequences for a child, leading to poor school performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression,” says Parents advisor David Fassler, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, in Burlington.
Research published in Archives of General Psychiatry revealed that kids who were bullied at age 8 were more prone to psychological problems as teens and early adults. Further, a University of Washington School of Medicine study found that elementary-school kids who are victims of bullying are 80 percent more likely to feel “sad” most days.
Harassment has become such a serious threat to kids’ health that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first official policy statement on the subject last year. It encourages physicians to raise awareness in their local schools and to provide screening and counseling for child victims and their families.
1. Talk about it. Talk about bullying with your kids and have other family members share their experiences. If one of your kids opens up about being bullied, praise him or her for being brave enough to discuss it and offer unconditional support. Coach him to get help. No matter how your child is being targeted, fighting back usually isn’t the best solution. Rather, teach him to walk away and seek help from a teacher or a supervising adult. Consult with the school to learn its policies and find out how staff and teachers can address the situation.
2. Practice a script. Rehearse the right way to respond to a tough kid (you might even use a stuffed animal as a stand-in) so your child will feel better prepared. Teach him to speak in a strong, firm voice — whining or crying will only encourage a bully. Suggest that he say something like, “Stop bothering me!” or “I’m not going to play with you if you act mean.” He could also try, “Yeah, whatever,” and then walk away. “The key is that a comeback shouldn’t be a put-down, because that aggravates a bully,” says Dr. Borba.
3. Buddy up for safety. Two or more friends standing at their lockers are less likely to be picked on than a child who is all alone. Remind your child to use the buddy system when on the school bus, in the bathroom, or wherever bullies may lurk. To avoid being harassed on the school bus, suggest that he sit next to friends, since a bully is less likely to pick on a kid in a group
4. Keep calm and carry on. If a bully strikes, a kid’s best defense may be to remain calm, ignore hurtful remarks, tell the bully to stop, and simply walk away. Bullies thrive on hurting others. A child who isn’t easily ruffled has a better chance of staying off a bully’s radar.
5. Don’t try to fight the battle yourself. Sometimes talking to a bully’s parents can be constructive, but it’s generally best to do so in a setting where a school official, such as a counselor, can mediate. Talk to your child’s teacher. If the harassment is happening at preschool or kindergarten, make administrators aware of the problem right away. Many schools have a specific protocol for intervening. When you report an incident, be specific about what happened and who was involved.