Ask The Therapist: “The worst thing a child has to endure at this tender age is bullying…”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, or simply need advice about their problems, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained counsellor. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“The worst thing a child has to endure at this tender age is bullying. If my child is getting bullied at school what are the signs, what psychological impression will it leave on him and what can I do to help?”

Haya’s Response:

It’s important that your son or daughter know that it’s not nice to call people names, or that pushing another child out of his or her way is not the way to handle a situation so that he or she can stand up for him- or herself. And these kinds of things happen with kids. They’re mean to one another as they learn how to handle situations.

But meanness isn’t bullying. It needs to stop, and we should teach kids to be kind, but it’s not the same.

It’s time we stop watering down the word by calling all mean behavior bullying. Bullying is different, and it causes damage. And, knowing the difference is crucial so we can help solve the problems caused by bullies.

Bullying is aggressive behavior in which there is a power imbalance. This imbalance can be real or it can be perceived. It doesn’t matter – there is a feeling of power one way, and that makes a difference. Children who bully use the power they have over others, like strength, popularity, or access to embarrassing information, to do damage to another person.

Bullying behavior is also repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. This repetition causes long-term negative effects to the person being bullied.

So, unless the mean behaviors mentioned in the section above are directed towards someone with less power, and are repeated over time, you’re not dealing with bullying.

There are different types of bullying:

Verbal bullying includes:

  • threatening
  • name-calling
  • taunting
  • teasing
  • spreading lies

Social bullying includes:

  • excluding someone from a group
  • getting others to gang up on someone
  • embarrassing others

Physical bullying includes:

  • damaging someone’s property
  • hitting or kicking someone
  • stealing someone’s things
  • making inappropriate gestures towards someone
  • pushing or tripping a person

Cyber bullying includes these behaviors through the use of:

  • texting
  • email
  • social media

Now that we are clear on what bullying is, coming back to your question. The start of an academic year is usually exciting for most children—new classes, new friends and new teachers—but for those who worry about bullying, it can be a recipe for a daily routine of stress and anxiety. It is estimated that one in four kids are bullied. But they are often afraid or hesitant to tell anyone they are being targeted. Parents should constantly talk with their kids about their day with the hopes they will open up about any problems, but if they are still reluctant, there are some red flags to keep your eyes out for.

There are certain signs your child may be getting bullied. They are:

  1. A reluctance to go to school in the morning.

Because school is a hot spot for bullying, a child’s reluctance to wake up and head out in the morning could signal that something is amiss. With younger children, watch for recurring excuses to stay home, such as aches and pains, or frequent calls from the school nurse requesting an early pickup. With adolescents and teens, check in with teachers periodically to monitor attendance, as this age group is more likely to skip school altogether. Keep a special eye out early in the week when looking for signs of bullying. Mondays are the most common day for wanting to avoid school, kids tend to feel safer at home on the weekends, and the idea of going back on Monday is difficult for them.

2.     A change in friendships

Loss or changes in friends could be signs of bullying, especially in adolescent and teen girls. Similarly, a reluctance to hang out with friends could signal bullying is taking place within a friend group. We see this a lot with ‘mean girls’ groups, and it’s often difficult for kids to recognize them as bullying. Parents can stay privy to shifts within their child’s group of friends by connecting with other parents in the group. That way, it’s easier to notice when a child is left out of birthday parties and events, or other group invites.

3.     Troubled sleep

If a child is nervous or anxious about what might happen the next day at school or elsewhere, he or she could experience difficulty falling asleep, or anxious tossing and turning. If a child seems tired at breakfast or just looks more worn out than usual, those could be signs they’re having trouble sleeping at night. Exhaustion could also show up in other ways: an inability to focus or maintain proper hygiene can indicate anything from sleep issues to bullying and depression.

4.     Declining grades

We all want our child to excel academically, and naturally kids want to succeed, but grades can often suffer when a child is being bullied. High anxiety levels can interfere with children’s ability to focus and pay attention in the classroom. Depression, anxiety and trouble sleeping can all create problems with schoolwork as well.

5.     A change in eating habits

When children come home from school, parents should not only ask about their day, but who they eat lunch with and what they ate. A change in eating habits could be a big warning sign of bullying. From no one to sit with and loss of appetite to not wanting to even enter the lunchroom, this could make lunchtime stressful for any child. Not eating lunch could also lead to weight loss, dizziness, headaches and binge eating at home—other signs to watch out for.

6.     Missing out on sports and activities

If children who once loved certain sports start saying they feel like they are not good enough to play, or that they were the cause of the team losing the game, other team members could be bullying them. Parents should take note if their once-active children are now spending more time on the computer, playing video games or texting friends. They could be isolating themselves from social activities such as sports or after-school activities on purpose.

7.     Crying spells or intense emotional reactions

If a child or teen has intense emotional reactions toward conversations about school or social activities, it could be a sign they’re holding anxiety around those events. In younger kids, this tends to focus on discussions around school, whereas, in high school they’ll become more emotional about Friday and Saturday nights. Either way, you’ll notice an emotional jag, or an unwillingness to delve into the subject.

8.     Not wanting to interact with the family

If a child is not as talkative as they normally are, or if they go straight to their room after school, those could be things to look out for. Acting out against siblings could also be a sign of prolonged bullying; in some cases, a bullying victim will drop the ‘victim stance’ and become reactive with siblings and other kids instead.

9.     Obsession or withdrawal from devices

If a child’s bullying takes place online, you might notice one of two things: an over-attachment toward electronic devices, or a complete withdrawal from them. Kids might be reluctant to tell adults about cyberbullying for fear their devices will be taken away. You’ll want to show you’re not going to take these devices away, but instead that you want to help solve the problem.

10.     Torn clothing and physical marks

Inexplicably torn, ruined, or stolen clothes and belongings, along with physical scrapes or bruises, are trademark signs of playground bullying. When parents ask about these things, the child tends to either not be able to explain them, or not want to explain. Again, ask open-ended questions: What happened today at recess? How did you feel when that happened?

11.     Take special note if your child is ‘the new kid’

Students without support systems are at the highest risk for bullying. That puts new kids at the top of the list. If your child is about to start at a new school, call and ask if the school can assign him or her a buddy. Even having one person the child can fall back on can help them assimilate more seamlessly with their new peers.

12.     They’ve developed a victim stance

Children who lack the skills or assertiveness to stand up for themselves, often acquire a victim stance: walking with their head down and being unwilling to comment or speak their mind. These children are also susceptible to being bullied year after year. If your child begins to embrace a meek stance, consider enrolling him or her in an activity that has no competition with other players, such as judo or martial arts. That way, the child will be able to build confidence without the pressure of pleasing teammates.

13.     Becoming aggressive and unreasonable at school

14.     Starting to get into more fights at school

15.     Show a change in their ability or willingness to speak up in class

16.     Appear insecure or frightened at school

Lets move on to your next query: How does bullying impact your child’s life?

Being bullied is both heartbreaking and miserable for those targeted. But many adults, unless they too have been bullied, have a hard time understanding just how much kids can suffer. They fail to realize that the consequences of bullying are significant and can have a lasting impact. Here is an overview of the effects of bullying and how victims can recover.

How Does Bullying Affect Victims Emotionally and Socially?

Kids who are regularly targeted by bullies often suffer both emotionally and socially. Not only do they find it hard to make friends, but they also struggle to maintain healthy friendships. Part of this struggle is directly related to low self-esteem. A lack of self-esteem is a direct result of the mean and hurtful things that other kids say about them. When kids are continually called ‘fat’ or ‘losers’, they begin to believe these things are true. Consequently, they may skip classes and resort to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. And if bullying is on-going, they may develop depression and even contemplate suicide.

If no intervention takes place, eventually kids can develop what is known as learned helplessness. This means that the targets of bullying believe that they cannot do anything to change the situation. As a result, they stop trying.

The Physical Impact of Bullying

Aside from the bumps and bruises that occur during physical bullying, there are additional physical costs. For instance, bullied kids often experience anxiety. This stress on their bodies also will result in a variety of health issues, including being sick more often and suffering from ulcers and other conditions caused by persistent anxiety. Skin conditions, stomach issues, and heart conditions that are aggravated by stress all worsen when a child is being bullied.

How Does Bullying Impact Academics?

Bullied kids struggle to focus on their schoolwork. Kids may be so pre-occupied by bullying that they forget about assignments or have difficulty paying attention in class. A study conducted by the University of Virginia showed that kids who attend a school with a severe climate of bullying often have lower scores on standardized tests. Bullying even impacts students who witness it. The good news is with proper support and intervention, most kids targeted by bullies will overcome bullying and things will get back to normal. But left unchecked, bullying can cause the victim to pay a high cost in long-term consequences.

What should parents and other adults do about bullying?

·       Be careful not to over-react or under-react.

·       Listen to what the child says.

·       Be empathetic.

·       Problem solve together with the child.

·       Make sure that they don’t blame the child.

·       Give the child lots of attention and alone time with to help build up confidence and keep the conversation going.

·       Encourage children to find like-minded friends so that they have a support group.

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