By Cindy Kelley and Tanahia Newman
Book bags, lunch boxes, and big yellow buses…these are the familiar signs of school. It is especially exciting for elementary aged kids who are just beginning their academic journey. Elementary school is full of opportunities to develop friendships, learn core academic skills and most importantly develop a love for learning. Under the surface, however, there resides an ugly truth that even as early as Kindergarten, acts of bullying are already occurring. When thinking about bullying we tend to picture middle and high schools as the common setting, however it is occurring in younger grades and can have long lasting effects on a child’s social and emotional development.
Bullying is different than being rude, as it is ongoing and repeated over time. It is important to differentiate the two in seeking ways to combat the problem. Ignoring the bully is typically the advice a child might hear, but does that actually work? Bullying is a pervasive problem that involves repeated acts, so ignoring it may not be effective. School districts around the country have implemented plans to address bullying and hopefully reduce incidents from occurring. Why then does it still happen? The truth is that tackling bullying takes a partnership between parents/guardians, school administrators, and students. School climate and peer interventions can be key components in reducing bullying behaviors. Peers that are not directly involved in bullying as either the victim or aggressor have a lot of power to diminish or promote bullying behaviors. Bystanders can reduce bullying by demonstrating attitudes and behaviors of acceptance of peers, and by rejecting negative behaviors. Peers can have a much greater impact than even school administration or parents.
Many behaviors that both bullies and victims share are products of mental health struggles. It is important to remember that children who bully need help also, as they are often modeling behavior that they have experienced or witnessed that has had a negative impact on their own emotional and mental health. Mental health struggles can look very different in children. This can make it very difficult to determine if a child has a diagnosable mental health disorder or if it is just a kid responding to struggles in his or her environment. Another struggle with determining if your child has mental health issues is that symptoms can overlap. For example, ADHD and Depression can look very similar. A Child with ADHD commonly experiences insomnia, difficulty with focus, and irritation, which can all be symptoms of depression as well. Depression is not as common in children as adults, so it is often overlooked. A child might lose attention in activities or present as angry and irritable and we dismiss it or try to teach them to have a better attitude. These behaviors could be symptoms of depression. Children don’t know how to express their feelings the way adults do. As a parent or guardian, you are most likely to be able to determine if your child is “acting out” or if it might be something more.
One thing that we are all uncomfortable talking about but needs to be addressed is Suicidal ideation. We all know that suicidal thoughts are a symptom of depression, but this can look very different in children and adolescents. Children are less likely to say “I want to kill myself,” but they might say, “I do not want to be here anymore”. Just because a kid says something like this does not necessarily mean you need to rush them off to the emergency room, but it might mean that you need to have a very real conversation with them. The most important thing to remember is to not be scared to ask questions. Just saying, “What do you mean when you say….”, could be enough, or you might need to ask more specific questions like, “Do you want to die?” If a child answers yes, it is important to ask how they would do this in order to determine how seriously they have considered death. Depending on the answer, this might be when you would need to call and get set up with a counselor or psychiatrist. If your child is actively planning or trying to hurt themselves with the intention of dying, you will need to seek more immediate help. Help is available at your local emergency room or by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
One of the most valuable things that a caregiver can do at home is make time for the child to talk about their worries, feelings or even behaviors. Scheduling 10 minutes every day for them to have your sole attention so that they can let it all out, might be all it takes to make a difference. It also can be helpful to give your child the words to better identify their feelings. As a parent, you are the expert on your child. You know them better than anyone else and you are the best person to determine how much help they need, whether it is at home, at school, or in a counselor’s office. Attending to these needs early can help prevent your child from becoming a perpetrator or a victim of bullying. It can help reduce struggles in adolescence and adulthood. You can help your child become an emotionally intelligent adult.
Bullying continues to be an issue that plagues children and adults alike. With the advancements in social media the problem has become even more difficult to tackle. Thankfully, there are resources to help. Mental health services are available as well as support sites such as Stopbullying.gov. Tapping into these supports can better equip parents and families in tackling bullying issues as well as providing advocacy for their student.
Cindy Kelley, LMFT has spent the last decade working with children and families to meet their goals in a variety of settings including schools, residential facilities and now in her own practice.
Tanahia Newman is a Licensed Master Social Worker who currently works as a School Social Worker with Williamson County Schools. Her experience includes collaborative work with communities and schools in addition to school based therapy.