Almost all adults can recall some instance of brushing up against a bully during childhood. These kids usually took on the role of the tough guy who shoves kids to the end of the line at school, or perhaps a gossip who spreads vicious rumors about her peers. For most of us, these experiences are nothing more than one of life’s many tough breaks and we consider them a normal part of growing up. However, when a young person is chronically the target of bullying, significant mental health concerns may arise. For some children the pain of continuing harassment becomes so severe that suicide is attempted.
Bullying is defined as intentional aggressive behavior characterized by an imbalance of strength or power. Bullying behaviors in boys are typically physical intimidation and threats. Bullying perpetrated by girls is often verbal with another girl as the target. Surveys cited by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry indicate that roughly half of all school-age children are bullied at some time, while 10 percent of these children are the targets of bullies on a regular basis. Victims of ongoing torment commonly fit the profile of a child who is passive, easily intimidated, has low self-esteem and few friends. Many refer to victims as survivors, to emphasize the potential for new strength and resilience after the teasing has ceased.
Because survivors often keep the incidences of bullying a secret for reasons of shame, fear of rejection or retaliation, it is important to be aware of the red flags which are frequent indicators of a child’s suffering. Warning signs that a child is being victimized can include depression, sudden loss of interest in (or avoidance of) school, a decline in school performance, and withdrawal or isolation from family interaction and activities. When these symptoms persist over several days or weeks, professional intervention is often warranted. When it is established that a child has been victimized by bullying, there are simple actions that are invaluable in providing support and building resilience in the young survivor.
A child who has suffered ongoing bullying is entitled to protection from future assaults, and assistance in dealing with the painful emotional and social consequences experienced in the aftermath. The primary task of parents and other adults in a survivor’s life is to assure the child that the bullying was not his or her fault, and that the child is in no way responsible for the actions of others. Discussing with the child what he or she should or could have done to prevent the bullying should be avoided, as this only serves to confirm the child’s belief that his or her actions did in fact cause the problem.
A second course of action is to assist the child in talking about the encounters with trusted adults, or submitting an incident report about the nature of the events. It is important to assure children that they have the right to tell their story and that no retaliation should come as a result. Next, secure the help of teachers, school administrators, counselors and coaches in advocating for survivors and initiating consequences to the perpetrator.
Facilitation of positive friendships can be a powerful means to rebuilding self-esteem and confidence in a child who has been victimized. Teaching survivors skills such as verbal assertiveness helps a child self-advocate if future incidents occur.
Catherine ‘Cat’ Gornet is a graduate student in Mount Mercy’s Marriage and Family Therapy program and author of this article. She is one of the student therapists at The Gerald and Audrey Olson Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic located at Mount Mercy CRST International Graduate Center, 1599 Wenig Road NE. The clinic provides extremely low cost mental health services to individuals, couples and families. To schedule an appointment call 319-368-6493 or click here.