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Communication Is Key to Addressing Bullying

This month the spotlight is on the topic of bullying. Hear from an expert on how to help kids cope.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a time to raise awareness of a problem linked to depression and destructive behavior. According to stopbullying.gov, between 1 in 3 to 4 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school. Hear from Jeffrey Gaborko, MD, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente Vacaville who has insights from helping patients and families struggling with the problem.

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Jeffrey Gaborko, MD

How prevalent is bullying?

It has always been around, but I am not sure I would say it is on the rise. What’s new is the birth of cyberbulling, which can range from saying negative things online to sexting, when these compromising photos go viral.

I advise parents to anticipate the potential here well ahead of time. Delay a child’s opening an email, Twitter, or Instagram account until at least age 13. Ask him or her if you may have an agreement where you can check the accounts occasionally, but frame it as, ‘I want to make sure that you are okay.’ Do not snoop — you can do worse damage to your child by breaking trust. Since it is difficult to follow a child on every social media app, you’ll need to be able to tap into an already strong relationship.

What are the bullying red flags?

School performance declining, including missing assignments or, if the child is the bully, being sent to the office. Unexplained physical changes, such as a sudden weight increase or drop, a radical change in style, or only wearing long sleeves, which may hide self-abuse such as cutting. This happens when a child is looking to cope in her environment and has run out of healthy ways. Inability to sleep or excessive sleeping. No plans, dreams, or goals; we all need something to look forward to. If your child is the bully, in essence she has a little hole in her life she is filling with a sense of power. Parents need to look at themselves and what that child is surrounded with because sometimes the bully is repeating behaviors she sees in her life.

Provide some examples of building rapport.

Family dinner conversations are a great time to share and a place where kids learn very early on how to interact socially. If they get a good example at home, it helps them understand what constitutes a healthy conversation — including respectful debate and disagreement. Then they can know how to identify when a conversation with a classmate is right or wrong.

Additionally, ask open-ended questions, such as ‘What’s it like to be a sixth-grader?’ or ‘What stresses you out these days?’ Listening goes farther than lecturing. Create chances to communicate by going on drives — with phones stowed away — and talking, or watching a coming-of-age film and discussing it. Finally, just be present in their world. Send your child a simple text saying you’re thinking of him.

You can’t always be there, so ensure your child has a sound support network beyond you: a school counselor, coach, a mentor who is 5 or 10 years older, anyone who can give wise counsel. Give other parents you respect and trust permission to be your eyes and ears. They can look out for trouble — but also pass on the good things your child does. You should be looking for the positive, too, and praising it.

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