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What parents can do about childhood bullying

An expert explains how to determine if your child is a bully or a victim — and how to take appropriate, effective action!

By Marlene Snyder, Ph.D.

If you're a parent concerned about bullying, it's important to recognize the signs that a child is a bully, as well as the signs of one who is being victimized. This is especially true if your child has a learning disability (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), conditions which make kids more vulnerable to bullying. Being alert and observant is critical, since victims are often reluctant to report bullying. Many victims don't report it to their parents or teachers because they're embarrassed or humiliated by the bullying. They may assume that adults will accuse them of tattling or will tell them to deal with it themselves. Some victims believe there is nothing adults can do to get the bully to stop. Naturally, bullies don't discuss their misdeeds with their parents or teachers. If their bullying behavior is reported and their parents confront them, bullies usually deny their involvement.

The victim: signs and symptoms

A child who is a victim of bullying may display one or more of the following behaviors at home*:

  • Comes home from school with clothing that's torn or in disarray, or with damaged books.
  • Has bruises, cuts, and scratches, but can't give a logical explanation for how he got them.
  • Appears afraid or reluctant to go to school in the morning, complaining repeatedly of headaches or stomach pains.
  • Chooses an "illogical" route for going to and from school.
  • Has bad dreams or cries in his sleep.
  • Loses interest in school work, and his grades suffer. If your child normally struggles in school because of a learning disability and is teased about having LD, school may become unbearable for him.
  • Appears sad or depressed, or shows unexpected mood shifts, irritability, and sudden outbursts of temper.
  • Requests money from you to meet the bully's demands and might even resort to stealing money from you or other family members.
  • Seems socially isolated, with few — if any — real friends; is rarely invited to parties or to the homes of other kids. His fear of rejection may lead him to shun others.

The bully: signs and symptoms

A youngster who is bullying other kids may display one or more of the following behaviors at home*:

  • Has a strong need to dominate and subdue others; asserts himself with power and threats to get his own way.
  • Intimidates his siblings or kids in the neighborhood.
  • Brags about his actual or imagined superiority over other kids.
  • Is hot-tempered, easily angered, impulsive, and has low frustration tolerance. Has difficulty conforming to rules and tolerating adversities and delays. If he has the impulsive/hyperactive type of AD/HD, that could explain some of these behaviors; if so, it's important to work with his doctor and teachers to address and manage such behaviors.
  • Cheating
  • Oppositional, defiant, and aggressive behavior toward adults, including teachers and parents.
  • Antisocial or criminal behavior (such as stealing or vandalism), often at a relatively early age. He may hang out with the "wrong crowd."

* Adapted from Bullying at School

What can parents of the victim do?

If you know or suspect your child is being bullied, but his school hasn't communicated with you about the situation, you should contact your child's teacher(s) right away. Keep in mind that your primary goal should be to get the school's cooperation to get the bullying to stop. Knowing your own child is being victimized can evoke strong feelings, but you'll get much more cooperation from school personnel if you can stick to the facts without becoming overly emotional. While you may want assurance that everyone involved is punished severely, try to focus on putting an end to the bullying!

Comments from readers

"I have 2 girls with learning diasablilties, who have been severly bullied along with a friend of theirs who has autism . Her parents and i have filed an ocr (office of civil rights) complaint against the school where they attend because they do nothing to controll the bullying. When the kids report the behavior all that is said is that they , the school , will address it. I'm done allowing them to not take responsibilty and failing to keep the school safe for all children. "
"My son has been getting bullied at school. When he goes into the restroom, then that's when other little boys will go in there and bully him. Well yesterday, he got punched in the nose by another boy, and so I had to go and pick him up, and take him to the doctor, to make sure his nose isn't broken. I don't think it is, but we will know for sure in a few days. I need to know what I can do to stop this! I have talked to the school several times, and they won't do anything to help prevent it. I was going to press charges on the other little 5th grader, but I would rather do something that will help all kids, and not just my child. So, I am not sure if pressing charges is the right thing to do or not. What can I do? Please give me some suggestions to help the entire school!!! I am at my wits end!!! Please help! "
"The main issue is that when we complain to our school, they actually tell the bully that the parents of XXX complained about you...guess what the bullying gets worse. What is with these kniucklehead guidance counslers. "
"Thank you so much for this information. We have tried so hard to get our daughter to learn how to deal with conflicts herself and to not resort to "tattling". But the continued and persistent harrassment that she has to deal with is just more than any child should have to handle. You have given us some great tools to work with and I couldn't agree more with what should be expected from the school. We have some great tools to move forward with now. Thank you! "
"Great article! "
"Bullying does not just occur between students. Teachers and Administrators can also be the cause of bullying of a student. What do you do then? This is more prevalent than you could imagine. Why do you think students are reluctant to report abuse?! When parents try to address this type of issue they are met with more troubles and their child is now further bullied by an authority figure. They are labeled as troublemakers and the only recourse is to change schools. Many parents are afraid to come forward for this reason. The schools don't want you to know about these things, they want to keep their ratings high. Bad teachers are kept on due to tenure and that's not right. We experienced this type of behavior on several occasions and were met with deaf ears. We need to figure out a way to make these bullies held accountable without fear of retribution. "
"My 5 year old son takes the bus with students ranging from Kindergarten to 6th grade. There are a number of students in the upper grade that find a way daily to tease, chase, argue, push or are agressive towards other kids at the bus stop. This morning, one of the older boys, (who is a safety for the school and was quick to tell me that) slammed another boy to the ground. When another parent and I heard more commotion coming from the bus clubhouse we went over and show 3 boys surrounding this one boy. When I yelled at them to knock it off, because there are younger kids around.. the boy (who is the safety) said well I was trying to hold him down and tell him to stop and claimed the boy punched him in the stomach. When I tried to find out what was going on, I (without malice) grabbed the boys arm and a nice voice, come here.. wait come here.I have had communication with this boy before when they complained to me about the driver, and I helped them out. There was no i! ntentional hurting of this child on my part. Another woman at the bus stop said you have no right to touch that child. While I can understand her point, when is enough with this bus stop. The principals have had discussions with the kids at this bus stop and the bus driver has issues on a every day occurance with the older kids on this bus. What else can I do. Someone is ultimately gonna get severely hurt. "
"i have been bullied scince the 4th grade. I'm currently in the 7th grade at Briggs Chaney middle school. The principal takes bullying seriously if she SEES it happen. My bullying is in the background. Im a prime target / obesse and have adhd. For those of you who know you can kick this persons butt before you do that do these 2 things i recently did. Ask your serious parent not the one who will go to the school(all the school does is pile up statements) ask them for advice. My advice from today was tell your counselour(or teacher/whoever) that you have warned this person you WILL hurt them. Tell them that next time they touch you you wont hold back. The teachers HAVE to care about that. Now here comes the part where they will ask you who this person is. Normally its not just one person. But that one person is normally the leader. If no one helps you YOU and only YOU can take a stand. If your a pacifist then im sorry i cant help you there. People say find a person you can tru! st. The thing is ask yourself. you can tell them the issue.....but what will they be able to do? "
"Here is a different way to deal with bullying, which some firends of ours started. Our friends' child had been bullied for years and had tried all the stuff like coaching the child to act confident, etc. etc. All this helped a little, but basically placed the whole burden on the bullied child and really didn't change much. They alkso had had many meetings with administrators, got a lot of head nodding and sympathy, no real results. So finally, they began getting together with other parents whose children had been bullied. The talked with other parents, held meetings, and eventually built a group of about 20 families. Then they went together to the school administration, named a list of specific incidents that all their children had suffered and names of the bullies, and told the administration that if any incident like these happened again, they would expect the bullies to be suspended. If they were not suspended, then ALL the parents (not just the parents of the ! one bullied child involved in the incident) would pull their kids out of school for an unexcused absence -- basically, a strike. And they would publicly let other parents know why they were doing this. They also said that if there was one more incident beyond that, they would not only have another strike, they would opt their kids -- again, *all* their kids -- out of taking the STAR tests that year. Schools hate this kind of thing. Frankly, they hate it more than bulling. It costs them money and bad publicity, and makes their STAR stats look bad. It was very effective. For the first time, the leaders in the bullying group (who were often in the "popular" clique at school, sometimes star athletes, etc.) were actually, finally, suspended for some of their actions. It was a short suspension, only two days, but it was the first time in years they had had a real consequence -- and the first time their parents had had to deal with it. Since then, my friends say, ! things have been a lot better for all of their children. The ! bullying kids have been politer, more respectful, doing much less of the mean things they had been doing and saying, b/c they know and their parents know and the school knows there will be a real consequence. The key is that the parents of bullied kids stuck together and went to the administration willing to take action together. Yes, this is a confrontational approach. It also needs parents to work together. But I think many parents have found that trying to solve the problems alone really does not work. Your family is isolated in dealing with the school and your kid is isolated in dealing with the bullies (who always work in groups). Also, it is often true that some of the meanest kids are the popular group and that school administrations, while they will say all the right things, are pretty passive in dealing with these kids. Working together and being willing to name names and impose consequences on the school was what really changed things. We are going to! start a similar group at our school and take an aggressive approach if necessary. If this works, it may begin a new way for parents to deal with their kids being bullied -- hopefully a much more effective one. "
"This article is not very helpful. How do you deal with children (witnesses) who refuse to speak on the bullying because they don't want to be 'tattletales.' We've gone to the school and my child continues to be bullied by the 'alleged' (their word). They have security cameras they won't look at and at least two witnesses they won't speak to. They honestly don't seem to care. So what do you do when the school won't cooperate and the kids involved are young teenagers who think they need to handle it on their own? My wife is worries all day, every day if the boy is safe. Is this the day it escalates and he really gets hurt? It's ruining his life, and it's ruining ours and the school won't help. What then?"
"I'm not an expect but was a school principal of 25 years and have many ideas that I would love to share about this topic. (from my practical experience) How can I do that? Ray"
"thanks that was helpful"
"I just read the articles on bullying. I'm afraid my young fellow will be ripe for bullies, he's very quite, unsure of himself and others. He is ADHA diagnosed @ 2yrs of age. He is just about to enter into middle school, I'm worried sick that he will not handle himself properly, we have discussed this on several occas. But when the time comes he'll forget or get tongue-tied. I suggest for him to open his mouth loudly and yell Stop! Leave me alone,and walk away! I think most bullies don't like to be seen by all, so just maybe they will back off! I don't know if this is right or wrong but will that be effective? Kids don't tell for not being caught as a snitch!or if they do tell they may not know who the bully is or class he's in. I am very nervous about all of this"
"My grandson is being bullied every day at school and I want it to stop! I feel that there is not enough of supervision in school to protect my grandson. He doesn't want to tell anyone for fear of retalliation from the bullies!"
"I've been teased, picked on, humiliated, ridiculed, and everything in between ever since 4th grade. My head almost ending up in a flushing toilet, all the sufferings of being the new kid, everything. But that was 9 years ago. I'm now a freshman in college, and now I'm finally liberated, but alas, it still sneaks up on me, but not as much as middle school. It comes as no surprise that I have higher functioning Asperger's, OCD, and probably ADHD, quite obviously making me a prime target for kids who enjoy making others miserable. The only people that seem to understand people with LD, ADHD, Asperger's and the such, or even normal kids who are bullied regardless, are people who have the disorders as well and have experienced their pain. I keep saying to anyone who listens that one Aspe kid is always able to recognize another, and they are also able to understand their 'psycological language' as fluently as they speak their own native tongue, so to speak. We tend to enjoy! anime, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and all that stuff, which makes us even more appetizing to bullies. Don't they realize that bullies also give suicide a really lusterous gleam to some kids? Just leave us kids alone. That's what we really want. All we desire is for it all to just end; don't make it hard for us."
"i been bullied since 1st grade and it doesnt ever really stop...."