Bullying can start the first day of school

What parents can do to help when their child is being bullied

IONIA COUNTY — For some children, returning to school after summer break is exciting. They can’t wait to learn to things, join new groups and make new friends.

For others, however, that first day is met with fear and trepidation. These are the kids who know that bullying can start that first day of school. In spite of school mission statements and anti-bullying policies and programs, bullying happens — and it doesn’t matter whether the school is a public, private or charter school.

Bullying is when a person who has power intimidates or tries to control another person, said Robert Lathers, CEO of The Right Door for Hope, Recovery and Wellness.

“Anybody can be bullied, or anybody can be a bully — even the little guys can be bullies,” Lathers said. “Bullying is when one child uses power over another child … but it’s really about (feeling) a lack of power. Bullying gives you a sense of power when you do not have something the other person has.”

Lathers said he thinks a common misperception about bullying is that it is a problem confined to children. He disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s just about kids, Lots of bullying is not done by kids. It’s done by adults. People feel bullied at work,” said Lathers. “In the school, if adults boss kids around and yell at them a lot, that validates other kids to do the same. If I do it, then that blesses it. A lot of the bullying is blessed by the adults, and the adults need to address this. We as adults have got to stop it.”

One of the important things a parent can do with their child is to help them define what bullying is for them. What is bullying to one child might not be bullying to another, but it is the child’s own experiences that are important. When a child doesn’t feel physically and emotionally safe in school, that environment negatively impacts their ability to learn and to develop socially.

Bullying not only can cause children to lose interest in school — and in learning altogether — it can create low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, anxiety and depression. Mental health issues caused by bullying can last a lifetime. It’s important for the adults in the child’s life be aware and ready to take action — with the child and, when needed, on behalf of the child.

StopBullying.org suggests parents and caregivers watch for behavior changes in their children, which might indicate they are being bullied. The child:

Comes home with injuries they can’t (or won’t) explain.
Has lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry.
Reports frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or fakes illness.
Has changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating.
Has difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.
Has declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or doesn’t want to go to school or after-school activities.
Has a sudden loss of friends or avoids social situations; may report “no one wants to play with me” or “no one wants to be my friend.”
Expresses feelings of helplessness, fear and shame.
Starts skipping school.
Engages in self-harming or self-destructive behaviors, including cutting, substance abuse, running away and even suicide.

“We have to keep reinforcing this: that it’s always about the bully, it’s not about us,” Lathers said. “We have to remind kids that. (The bully’s choice to bully) is not about you, it’s about them. … Don’t internalize it.”

Parents can help the child choose what they’re going to react to and what they choose to let go. That doesn’t mean they ought to accept the bullying, but they don’t have to confront the bully.

“They can walk away. Walking away is a way to deal with a bully. And anyone being bullied needs to report it to somebody in authority,” Lathers said. “It doesn’t mean they’ll always do something about it.”

Parents or caregivers can give their children who are being bullied support, comfort and advice, as well as advocate on their behalf with the school. Start spending time each day asking about their lives — the good parts and the bad — to help their child know that their parent or caregiver is interested and the child can come to them for help in difficult situations, which includes being bullied.

Additional tips from StopBullying.org on dealing with bullying at a school are:

Talk to your child calmly about what is going on at school.
Find out what happened, and let them know that bullying is not their fault, they do not deserve to be bullied and it is not acceptable. Never tell a child to ignore being bullied, or ask them what they did to provoke being bullied, or tell them to physically fight back.
Discuss solutions and involve them in a plan of action to help them regain the feeling of control that is lost in a bullying situation.
If you are concerned, ask for a meeting with the teacher to discuss and address the issue.
If the situation persists, ask for a meeting with the principal to find out school policy on handling bullying.
If you are not satisfied with the results of the interventions for bullying, seek out the advice and help of a psychologist or educational consultant.
Parents should not contact the other parents involved. It may make the situation worse. Let school or other officials mediate.
Contact the police when: a weapon is involved; there are threats of serious physical injury; there are threats of hate-motivated violence, such as racism or homophobia; there is serious bodily harm; there is sexual abuse; or if anyone is accused of an illegal act such as robbery or extortion (using force to get money, property or services).
Bullying may not end overnight, but it’s important to continue to support the child being bullied while working to end bullying.

“I don’t think schools are doing enough about bullying, because I don’t think they train their staff enough (on what to do),” Lathers said. “That’s where it starts. So schools could do more, but parents have to do something about it, too.”