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Experts share tips for recognizing effects of bullying

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- While bullying is not new, the Internet and advances in technology have given bullies a wider stage on which to cause psychological distress that some scholars suggest is more severe than traditional bullying.

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Most bullying occurs in middle school through the ninth grade and tapers off later in high school, said Ashley Schreurs, a counselor at The Village Family Services Center in Grand Forks.

Texting and social networking have increased the prevalence of bullying, she said.

About 28 percent of 12- to 18-year-old students have reported being bullied in the previous six months, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study.

Teenagers have committed suicide to escape the pain inflicted by cyberbullying, which is the use of email, cellphones, text messages and websites to intentionally convey hurtful messages, photos and videos.

Teens who have ended their lives “have come to a point where they feel this is their only option to find relief specifically from bullies,” said Schreurs, who is pursuing a graduate degree in counseling psychology at the University of North Dakota.

“The psychological effects of bullying include symptoms of anxiety and depression and a decrease in an individual’s self-esteem,” she said.

Other effects include “fatigue, loss of energy, and feelings of worthlessness or excessive feelings of guilt, which is related to depression symptoms,” she said.  

The problems can carry over into adulthood, affecting one’s ability to cope in relationships.  

Definition

As bullying — and the damage it causes — has grabbed the nation’s attention, educators and other professionals have worked to define the behavior, which takes on various forms, in order to create policies and standards to identify and effectively deal with it.

Bullying behavior is marked by “harassment, humiliation, teasing and threats,” Schreurs said. “All these pertain to cyberbullying as well.”

“It can be verbal, psychological or physical intimidation,” she said. “The intent is to cause fear, distress or harm.”

Bullying involves “an imbalance of power, which is perceived by the bully, where the victim feels alone or is singled out,” Schreurs said. It also includes “a component of repetition.”

“Most adults underestimate of how often it occurs, because parents and teachers are unsure of the definition of bullying,” she said. “They think of it as physical, they do not think of the psychological aspects, the rumors or the cyberbullying.”  

Because of their roles, “teachers see the playground bullying; they are not seeing the exclusions, teasing and other forms of nonverbal bullying.”

And kids may not report it.    

“Children are less likely to disclose to adults because they feel adults don’t know what’s going on (in the area of communication technology),” she said. “It’s called the ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital gap.’

“Or children feel that adults may minimize the bullying — that their feelings will not be validated.

“If an adult says, ‘It’s not a big deal; just ignore it,’ the child may believe that all adults will do the same.”       

What can parents do?     

Parents need to watch for signs that their child is being bullied, and talk to him or her about what’s happening, counselors emphasize.

“Kids don’t want to say because they’re embarrassed or ashamed,” said Dr. Dennis Regling, an author and educational presenter on the topic of bullying in Freeport, Ohio.

Watch for changes in behavior, sudden loss of friends and not wanting to go to school or an activity they have enjoyed, he said.

“If your child’s eating patterns have changed, something could be wrong.”   

Torn clothing, unexplained injuries, lost possessions such as electronics or jewelry may also indicate that your child is being bullied, he said.

Children who exhibit anxiety, irritability or sleep disturbance may need extra attention from their parents, Schreurs said.

She recommends encouraging children to get involved in extracurricular activities that may enhance self-esteem.

“Talk about what being a good friend is,” she said. “It’s about being respectful and showing empathy.”

Teaching kids “friendship skills,” such as how to communicate well, is important, she said. “They need to validate each other’s feelings, like saying, ‘You sound mad; I’d be mad too. That’s a bummer.’

“Teach them how to listen and repeat back what they’re hearing, and how to give feedback to friends, ask questions that help them figure out more about the situation — and not give advice — so people can talk it through.”       

If you suspect your child may be the object of bullying, “have an open conversation about it,” she said, “rather than saying to ignore it or retaliate, which could cause the bully to do more or may get (your child) in trouble.

“Talk about the consequences of their actions, both good and bad.”

If the situation is serious, talk with the teacher, “but include the child, so they don’t feel like you’re going behind their back,” she said. “To a child, that feels like a betrayal, and they’ll close down communication.”        

If your teen doesn’t want you to go to the teacher or another school official, “I wouldn’t promise that,” Schreurs said. “If the bullying escalates, more harm can be done.”

Listen to kids

Listening to their children is one of the most important things parents can do to protect them from bullying, Regling said.

“Teens need to be listened to. They don’t want Mom and Dad necessarily to solve their problems,” he said. “They want to learn how to solve their problems themselves.

“Teaching them how to handle bullies gives them power and confidence.”

“Teach them to hold their head high and walk away, not argue and escalate,” Regling added. “The bully wants to see you cry, wants to see you upset.

“Let them know that their value is not based on the actions and words of someone else.”

Self-confidence is important, he said. “Bullies, like wolves, tend to look for the weak one. Stay in groups; so often bullying happens when someone is isolated.

“Sometimes they need to go to an adult or an older sibling or friend for help.”

Words can hurt deeply, he said. But “where are those words coming from, and how much power are you going to give that person to hurt you?”    

Teach children to be selective about their friends, he said.

Regling also recommended to stop cyberbullying before it starts. “We need to know what (kids) are doing. Parents should have their children’s passwords.”  

Impart to kids that they “should not do anything they don’t want people to see, because once it’s on the Internet, you’ll never get rid of it,” and it could be used against you by others.

Question  

To determine if your child is being bullied, you need to identify it, Regling said. “You need to be asking questions and listening.   

“If you live in a rural area, it would not be wrong to call a parent and say, ‘Is your child having a problem with my child?’”   

Find out where the bullying is happening, he said. “If it’s on a bus, ask if your child can be moved to a seat near the front.

“Sometimes you have to separate the child from the situation.”   

Talk with the teacher or the coach, Regling said. “So many kids miss school every day because something has happened.

“The important thing is to be open-minded and not accuse. Your questions should be nonaccusatory and open-ended.”

If your child’s safety is at stake, “it’s a good time to get the school or someone else involved,” he said. “Let people know what’s going on. If one child is being bullied, chances are someone else is, too.”  

Sometimes bullying behavior “is downright crime,” he said. “Criminal behavior is treated differently. You go to the police.”

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