On our Minds

Bullying: a new pasttime?

In my practice, I often work with children who voice concerns about bullying. While bullying itself is nothing new, it has taken on new forms in recent years with the introduction of various media outlets such as texting and social networking sites.  It is also growing in populations and age groups that we have not considered in the past.  Historically, traditional bullying has been more predominant in middle-school and among boys.  More recently however, bullying has been on the rise in children as young as 10 and especially in girls.  Tragically, with cyberbullying occurring at what feels like epidemic proportions, children and teens are turning more and more to extreme measures such as suicide.  It seems every day there is a new story about the tragic impact of bullying on our youth, whether for the victims or the bullies, who are beginning to face consequences as serious as criminal charges.  This is clearly an issue that can no longer be ignored by parents or schools, begging the question, “What do we need to know?”

“Aren’t they just being kids?”

One of the most difficult obstacles to addressing bullying is the fact that it can be hard to accurately identify.  Despite recent media attention on severe bullying cases, many people still think of bullying behavior as “kids being kids.”  This perception is often wrong and can lead to children experiencing unnecessary and prolonged distress.  In general, bullying can take on direct and indirect forms.  Direct bullying occurs when one or more people repeatedly say or do hurtful things to another person who has difficulty defending or asserting oneself.  This can include offensive or teasing/insulting comments, threats or aggressive behavior (hitting, pushing, kicking).  Indirect bullying includes behaviors such as excluding someone from a group of friends, spreading rumors or “backbiting” and preventing or manipulating someone’s friendships.  This is sometimes referred to as “emotional bullying” and is especially on the rise in girls.  It is important to know that this type of bullying has been recognized as equally destructive as more direct forms of bullying and sometimes with longer-lasting damage to self-esteem.

The newest and fastest rising form of bullying is taking place on the internet and cell phones.  With the rise of MySpace, Facebook, texting, chat rooms and 24-hour access has come 24-hour bullying.  Unfortunately, real life bullying stops when you go home, while cyberbullying is ongoing and is experienced at all hours of the day.  Recent statistics show that 33% of children have been victimized online, with more likely as 41% did not tell anyone they were being targeted.  Girls are twice as likely than boys to be both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying, while boys tend to engage in more direct bullying and aggression.  (Source: National Crime Prevention Council, 2010)

With bullying taking on so many forms and permeating even the most personal boundaries, it is especially crucial for adults to be aware and to act accordingly.

“Is my child at risk?”

Parents of bullied children often describe their children as more naturally anxious, sensitive and socially unsure by nature.  They often have low self-confidence and may have few or no friends.  Research studies have validated these reports and have found that having these traits can set children up for bullying, as they are less assertive with others and have more difficulty defending themselves.  Unfortunately, ongoing bullying will only increase these children’s anxiety, insecurity and negative self-esteem, leading to more social difficulties and possibly depression.  It is important to understand that children rarely provoke bullies, unlike common misperceptions.  If your child displays the above characteristics, it is wise to be more aware and more direct with them about the possibility of bullying.

“What can I do if my child is being bullied?”

~ It is important to help your child build positive self-esteem from an early age.  Highlighting her strengths or abilities is an easy first step to doing this.  Rescuing your child consistently from fearful situations only increases her anxiety, as she learns to believe she cannot handle situations herself.

~ Get your child involved in positive social situations, such as play groups, sports or activity-based groups (music, crafts, etc.).  Encourage your child to build social relationships with friendly kids (in or outside of their class) and others.

~ Ask or talk to your child directly about bullies and listen actively.  If your child is younger, you may have to be more actively involved in addressing it with the relevant adults.  If older, engage him in problem-solving to increase his sense of empowerment while providing him with your support.

~ Inform your child’s teacher, school staff, counselor, etc. that bullying is taking place.  Try to collaborate with them on ways to handle both students and provide support for your child if needed.  It is their role to address this with the bully as well.  Many schools now have a “No Bullying” policy and take it quite seriously.  Do not ignore threats made to your child; these need to be addressed immediately.

~ Help your child learn and rehearse appropriate social skills and assertiveness.  Provide positive feedback when your child handles tough situations well and offer constructive feedback if she could handle situations more effectively.  Social skills groups can be helpful in allowing your child a place to learn and practice skills in a safe setting.  Even children as young as 4-years-old can learn and use assertiveness skills with bullies.  Be a good role model!

~ If your child is “online,” or has a cell phone, have conversations about cyberbullying and appropriate ways to manage these situations.  Educate her about online safety and the importance of taking threats or insults seriously by informing an adult. Keep the texts or written records; cyberbullying is now a legal issue as it can include “Invasion of Privacy.”  Local police and legal consultants are increasingly involved in addressing this form of bullying and can be contacted as a resource.  Pressing charges may be appropriate in certain cases and should be considered as necessary.

~ Help your child designate safe adults to talk with at school or elsewhere if he is feeling threatened or harassed.

Bullying is a serious issue for many children and is now occurring both in person and online.  It can have devastating consequences and requires the knowledge and support of adults in the child’s life.  The most important thing you as a parent can do is have open communication with your child.

On our Minds

School Refusal and Anxiety

School refusal is a growing problem for all ages of children and adolescents.  The reasons for this vary, and to treat it appropriately it is essential to determine the specific reasons for each individual child/teen.  However, it is understandable that school-based anxiety is higher among students in general with the increasing demands of modern schools.  My young clients often report more bullying, social cliques and increased academic expectations/workload than in previous years, even impacting children as young as 8 or 9.  In fact, many children and teens report their social anxiety related to peer relationships as a primary reason for resistance to attend school. 

Unfortunately, this often results in increased difficulties across the board, including growing distress in the child and for the family due to increased conflicts over missing or being late to work and school.  At times, school refusal can result in aggressive and highly oppositional behavior from the child/teen, leading parents to feel unprepared and helpless as what to do next.   Most parents hope this will subside, and in some cases it will.  However, the longer this behavior continues, the more difficult and serious it often becomes, as it then becomes habitual to the child and harder to redirect. 

While school refusal can occur at any age, it is most common among children 5-7 and 11-14 years-old, which coincide with the increased academic and social challenges of those grades.  Due to the complications associated with school refusal behavior, it often requires a multi-pronged intervention, including close collaboration among the parents, the school Staff and often a therapeutic professional to transition the child/teen back to school in a supportive manner. 

Common reasons for school refusal behavior can include:

– Fear of separating from the family (which can include fear of harm coming to themselves or the family)

– Social stressors, including bullying, peer conflicts and fear of social embarrassment or getting in trouble

– Academic fears, including fear of making mistakes, reading aloud, tests, etc.

– Depression, with loss of motivation and sleep disturbance

Common signs of Separation Anxiety:

– Frequent physical complaints, including stomach aches, head aches, fatigue, or “feeling sick” before school or any separation (which often disappears once at school)

– Clingy behavior and/or excessive shyness with new people

– Severe tantrums or panic symptoms when expected to leave for school or leave the parents, which can include opposition, arguing, defiance and aggression

– Difficulty sleeping alone or frequent nightmares

– Fear of being alone and excessive reassurance seeking behavior

School Refusal is a challenging but treatable concern.  Interventions often include a focus on relaxation skills, problem-solving skills, cognitive restructuring and parent training, which assists parents in increasing rewards for attendance and decreasing rewards for refusal.  Both parents and School Staff are provided recommendations for decreasing uncertainty through consistent routines and preparation, increasing social rewards for participation and minimizing negative “pressures,” both academically and socially.  With such collaboration, children and teens are often able to successfully transition to school and cope more effectively with their stressors. 

Ariel Shea, LCSW

The Looking Glass, LLC

Denver, Colorado