Every Parent Should Be Concerned About Bullying

Although many parents assume they would know if their son or daughter were being bullied, this is not always the case—even if kids seem happy and have friends in school. Just this week, a diminutive 10-year-old revealed in his initial evaluation session that some of his “friends” push him, tell him he “doesn’t belong,” and say he’s “too small.” When I asked this sensitive little boy if he had told anyone else about his mistreatment, he admitted he hadn’t. He wasn’t sure why, but he never told his parents. Unfortunately, this has been occurring with increasingly frequency in my practice.

New research on the long-term effects of even occasional bullying in childhood make it imperative that parents become aware of these experiences. An impressive, five-decade long study of 7700 children born in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1958 found that those who were frequently bullied were still suffering at age 45. They had higher rates of anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal plans. Victims of bullying were more isolated, less likely to be living with partners, and reported lower levels of life satisfaction. Children who were bullied occasionally were more likely than those never bullied to endure psychological distress or depression at midlife. They also had poorer cognitive functioning, general health, and social support systems.

Along with clinical experience, these findings indicate that parents should routinely ask kids how they are being treated. It is reasonable to ask, “Do your classmates ever make you feel bad?” or “Are your friends mean to you?” Asking these direct questions will not, as some parents may worry, put ideas into children’s heads; rather, it gives them permission to talk about topics they may otherwise fear are taboo. If parents find out kids have been bullied, they can explore the extent of it, teach children how best to respond, practice these skills with them and, if appropriate, inform school authorities—who have a responsibility to insure all kids are safe. Parents who are in doubt about whether they and/or their children are handling these situations most effectively should seek help from school counselors or private mental health professionals.

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