Mental Health Matters: Is It “Kids Being Kids” or Bullying

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Expert advice for parents on how to tell the difference and, most importantly, how to react.

It’s not uncommon for a child to complain about a “mean” classmate from time to time. But for some parents, the abuse or attacks at their child’s school seem relentless and could be categorized as bullying.

As explained on StopBullying.gov, bullying affects everyone—the bullies, their targets and those who witness it—and is linked to many negative outcomes on mental health.

To gain insight on bullying and what parents should know, we sat down with Linda Grubba, MEd., SB-RPT, an adjunct professor of counseling at University of Lynchburg. She spent 37 years in education, 27 of those years as a school counselor.

First, how would you define bullying?

I’m glad you asked that. I think right now we have some misconceptions about bullying because there is so much attention paid to it. There should be attention paid to it, but it has almost gone to an extreme. If some parents hear that another child was unkind to their child, they think that is bullying. Bullying is more complicated and has three major components: it is a repeated pattern of behavior, an intent to cause harm (either physical or emotional), and there is a clear unbalance of power where one of the individuals doesn’t feel like they can defend themselves.

If a parent suspects their child is being bullied at school, what should they do?

Parents should first ask the child some questions such as: “How did you handle this?” or “Have you told anybody?” You should get a feeling right away about whether the child feels powerless. Also, look at how often the child talks about it. If your child is coming home every day for a number of days talking about this same other child, or situation, then you might have a bullying problem.

What should parents not say to their children?

“Just ignore it” is one thing I would avoid. Or, “They are all just jealous of you.” Not always! In some cases that might be accurate but sometimes it’s not. I had the parent who told their child to, “draw blood” and punch the other child. That’s not a good idea.

What’s the next step?

Ask your child, “Have you talked to your teacher or your counselor?” Help empower the child to take the first steps to solve the problem. We can’t always be with our children so we have to teach them how to ask for help. We don’t want them suffering in silence.

If a child sees a counselor, what can they expect?

School counselors are trained at assisting children to develop a variety of coping skills. They will meet with the child, assess the situation, possibly do some investigating, and formulate a plan of action. The purpose will always be to help the targeted child feel safe and have the situation come to a positive resolution.

What if that doesn’t seem to be enough?

The next step is for the parent to talk to the school. Parents can be great partners in problem solving; they bring an additional perspective. The school is in a prime position to do some investigating, observing and intervention. I remember when I was a counselor going out to the playground to watch certain students or sitting in the cafeteria to do the same. We want all children to be functioning at their best.

Some parents might wonder if calling the school means they are intervening too much? Being one of those “helicopter moms”?

Calling the school doesn’t mean you are filing a huge complaint. When you call the school, you don’t have to be angry and demanding. Just start small and try to get a handle on what is going on.

How has bullying become a bigger problem in recent years?

I think the area that is the most challenging at the moment is social media because of the lack of control. There is not that face to face accountability. People say horrible things to each other.

Even adults do!

Oh goodness, yes. We have a lot of adults who are engaging in bullying on social media. Then our children model that behavior—on social media and in real life.

Social media has definitely changed the dynamics. It used to be back in the day kids got a chance to go home and regroup.

Exactly. Our homes used to be the place where you got away from those stressors and got to refuel. But now, in just a split second, “There is another message on my phone.” They get so caught up in it. I’m not advocating that parents get rid of their child’s smartphones. But I think we really have to look at how they are being utilized and do we need more limits and controls? I don’t think kids necessarily have the judgment needed to navigate some of these social media platforms.

Looking at bullying in terms of mental health, what is the biggest concern for children who are dealing with it at school or online?

Bullying erodes the child’s confidence. So you want to intervene as soon as
you can with the school. We also need to help our children learn assertion skills.
If left unattended, it may lead to academic issues, school avoidance and more serious mental health concerns such as depression.

Assertion doesn’t come naturally for some kids, right?

Right. I could walk into a classroom and almost identify a student that would be a target. Some parents think aggression is assertion. And it’s not. Assertion is the ability to walk confidently and look at people when we speak, even if we are nervous on the inside.

What about the kids who are saying the mean things? There are concerns about their mental health, too.

When you label a child a bully, that’s such a negative label to carry. Bullying is something that many children often “try on” at different times of their life. We have to help them understand that’s not an appropriate way to get their needs met. We need to help the child who doesn’t have good assertion skills. We always need to help children who are using their power in a negative way learn how to get their needs met in a more positive way.


Bullying By the Numbers

28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 have experienced bullying.

Approximately 30% of young people have admitted to bullying others in surveys.

70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.

9% of students in grades 6–12 have experienced cyberbullying.

In one large study, about 49% of children in grades 4–12 reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month, whereas 30.8% reported bullying others during that time.

When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.

Source: Numbers found in surveys and studies compiled by StopBullying.gov.

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