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POV: Taking a stance against bullying

How we can help prevent, end hurtful behavior among children

Alison Pittman, PhD, RN, CPN, CNE, CHSE, clinical assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Nursing, shares what bullying is, why it is such an important issue to address and how to support children enduring this behavior—and how to stop or even prevent it.

Experts agree: bullying is a form of violence against children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” The behavior is often repeated over time.

Bullying can be physical (hitting, tripping) or mental (teasing, threatening to harm, spreading rumors or leaving kids out on purpose). These actions can be in person or online through text messages, emails or social media (called cyberbullying).

Bullying is a serious issue and is among the most common discipline problem in schools. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports 1 in 5 high school students report being bullied at school within the last year. Twenty-two percent of middle schools report a bullying problem at least once per week, also according to the CDC.

Bullying causes serious, lasting problems. Children who are bullied can feel anxious or depressed, powerless and isolated. They are more likely to have health or school problems and even bully themselves. Similarly, youth who bully others are more likely to use drugs or alcohol, have problems in school or experience violence later in life.

Why do children bully?

Many children who bully do not realize what they are doing is wrong. Early intervention is key to help the child understand his/her behavior must change. Other children may need support for underlying reasons for their behavior. Studies show:

  • The child gets attention from others for bullying
  • It makes the child feel better than the person being bullied
  • The child who is bullying is already being bullied at home or school
  • The child does not understand how to socialize and acts inappropriately

How do you know if a child is being bullied?

Some signs may include unexplained injuries, damaged or lost belongings, frequent headaches or stomachaches, or changes in eating habits. The child who is bullied may have trouble sleeping, avoid or lose interest in school, lose interest in friendships, or even show self destructive behaviors (running away, self-harm or talking about suicide).

Children often do not tell adults that they are being bullied. The child who is bullied may be fearful of the child who is bullying, or of being labeled a “tattletale.” He or she may want to try to handle it alone, or may fear being judged or punished. The child may also feel like no one can understand what he or she is going through.

What steps can you take to support a child being bullied?

The first step for any health problem is prevention. It is very important to teach children (both those who are being bullied and those who see bullying happen) that the best thing to do is to get an adult who will stop the bullying on the spot. The child may want to tell the child who is bullying to “STOP” in a calm, clear voice. If this seems unsafe, the child can walk away and stay away. Tell the child not to fight back, but to find an adult to stop the bullying right then. Encourage talking to an adult whom the child trusts, so that person can help make a plan to stop the bullying. Encourage the child to stay near adults and other kids (bullying often happens when adults and large groups of kids are not around).

Children now also face increasing instances of cyberbullying, or online bullying. As their guardians, we should be intentional in teaching them to think twice about what they post online, recognizing anything can be forwarded to others. Helping them understand that these things could hurt or embarrass someone, including themselves, is important.

We also need to remind them not to share their passwords with anyone except their parents and to talk to an adult they trust if they see anything online or receive a message that makes them sad or scared. As a general rule, parents should stay “in the loop” and provide the support system that helps facilitate a child’s willingness to do so.

What resources are available?

The CDC has outlined several strategies for preventing youth violence and related risk factors:

  • Promoting a home environment that supports healthy development
  • Quality early education (preschool) with parent participation
  • Nationwide school programs that teach problem-solving and communication
  • Connecting youth to caring adults and activities (mentors, afterschool programs)
  • Creating a protective community (neighborhood outreach for safe, healthy places for kids)
  • Intervening when bullying occurs to treat the harm that violence causes and reduce future risk

School teachers and staff, community youth programs, government entities, health care providers and community leaders must all be involved in carrying out these approaches to prevent youth violence. Recognizing the need for an interactive resource to help implement these strategies, the HHS and the CDC have partnered in the development of an online database of resources for people of all ages.

Bullying is 100 percent preventable, and people of any age can take a major role in making sure our children are safe. When adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior, they send a reinforced message that the behavior is not acceptable, and research shows this can stop bullying over time.

Above all, children should be encouraged to treat everyone with respect. “Stop and think before speaking or acting” is a very simple but significant message that serves as the backbone in ending this form of violence against and among children.

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