What parents should know about bullying amid a 'complicated year, socially, for a lot of kids'

In July the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance to emphasize that "students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority." Although the Delta coronavirus variant is raising many questions about what exactly the 2021-22 school year will look like — and how safe it will be — American kids are, for the most part, going back into the classroom. It's a transition some families are approaching with excitement and relief, others with trepidation, and one that comes with an evergreen concern on top of all the other pandemic-related challenges: Will my kid be bullied?

Here's what parents need to know about bullying as their kids resume in-person learning. (Getty Creative)
Here's what parents need to know about bullying as their kids resume in-person learning. (Getty Creative)

In her new parenting book How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting — From Tots to Teens, author Melinda Wenner Moyer cites a 2014 analysis of 80 studies that estimated that 1 in 3 12- to 18-year-olds participated in traditional bullying; 1 in 6 engaged in cyberbullying. Additionally, Wenner Moyer tells Yahoo Life that the dynamics of the pandemic — tension over masking and vaccinations, social anxiety for those who have spent the better part of two years at home and isolated from their friendship groups and classmates — could make this a "complicated year, socially, for a lot of kids," potentially leading to more friction between students.

With this in mind, it's important for parents to know how to support a child who has been bullied. It's also crucial that they teach their kids about not engaging in bullying behavior themselves, something that often gets overlooked. (Wenner Moyer's book notes that, while parents frequently worry that their child will be bullied, they're less consumed with the possibility that their child might be the one doing the bullying.)

Here are some tips to get started.

Talk about bullying with your kids and help them identify what it looks like.

Not all bullying is as overt as stuffing someone inside their locker; it can also mean calling names, spreading gossip, teasing or other actions kids might initially write off as harmless. In her book, Wenner Moyer writes that "crucially, bullying involves a perceived power dynamic — it's one child in a position of social or physical power picking on another child with less."

Giving kids a clear understanding of how something that may seem benign to them can actually be hurtful is an important step in preventing them from bullying others, whether they intend to or not, she says.

"We should be having conversations about bullying with our kids, because the research suggests that there's so many kids who are occasionally engaging in bullying — not all the time, but there is this sort of continuum ... and a lot of these kids don't even recognize that what they're doing is hurtful," Wenner Moyer explains. "No matter who our kids are and how kind we think they are, we should be talking to them about what bullying can look like, and the fact that sometimes what we say and do can be hurtful to others, even if we don't intend it that way."

She adds, "I think parents sometimes assume that their kids would ... know better; they know already what bullying is and they know what it looks like. But what the research suggests is that's not really the case. We actually need to be having these explicit conversations with our kids."

This is particularly true if your family is one that likes to rib one another. If gentle teasing is your brood's particular love language, kids may not get the message that their friends and classmates can be hurt by jokes made at their expense. That's not to say that your family needs to curb that banter at home, just that children will need to have a strong sense of the boundaries between what's playful and what's pointed and potentially harmful in terms of their own social interactions. And if you observe them engaging in bullying behavior, address it and issue appropriate consequences.

Being able to recognize the signs of bullying can also help kids be good bystanders who help discourage that behavior by intervening, not joining in or simply just practicing kindness to classmates, Wenner Moyer writes in her book.

Preemptively address any issues that may flare up.

Inconsistency about mask mandates has already given rise to concern that kids will be bullied over whether or not they mask up at school, while vaccinations for those age 12 and up remains a hot-button issue amid the Delta surge. This is a good time to consider how your own opinions on the matter may have swayed your child, and to preemptively turn down the proverbial heat before they head into a charged atmosphere.

Wenner-Moyer suggests explaining to your kids why some classmates will be wearing masks, but others might not be. Wenner-Moyer adds that there are nuances, such as health issues or other personal situations, that make this not an "easy black-and-white decision." It's OK to share your own stance on the matter, but note that every family has a different priority and that, for the purposes of going to school, it's best to avoid villainizing or judging anyone for the choices they make. (If you have health concerns about how your kid interacts with a classmate who won't wear a mask or isn't vaccinated, offer your kid solutions that are sensitive, not shaming.)

Parents should listen to their kids after a bullying incident before swooping in with a solution or advice, experts say. (Getty Images)
Parents should listen to their kids after a bullying incident before swooping in with a solution or advice, experts say. (Getty Images)

Offer support — and space — if your child has been bullied.

If your child has been picked on and is upset about it, it's tempting to want to swoop in to try to fix the situation immediately. But Wenner-Moyer advises taking a beat to listen to what your child is feeling and needing from you before rushing in with solutions or strong reactions. Think of it as the emotional version of holding your breath when your kid falls down and is deciding whether or not to crumble.

"I think one of the less productive things that sometimes parents do — and it's well-intentioned — but we will sit down with our kids and ask them what's happening, and then sort of immediately jump in with advice," she says. "'Why aren't you doing this? And why don't you do this?'... [We should instead] take a step back and let our kids talk to us and just be there and listen before we try to figure out next steps and, really, just be a receptive vehicle for whatever they're going through. That can be really helpful because then they will open up more and they're just given more of an opportunity to explain how they're feeling without being judged or without being given advice."

Understandably, your kid may be anxious about returning to school amid a bullying situation. It's "reasonable," Wenner Moyer says, to give them a day or two to recover while you address the matter with the school, though more than that could affect their schoolwork. If bullying becomes a persistent, long-term issue or your child is struggling to cope, a more extensive action plan, such as working with a therapist, may be needed.

Alert the school — but not necessarily the other parents.

Your child is upset and you're seeing red. But before you pick up the phone and give the perpetrator's family a piece of your mind, take a deep breath. That knee-jerk response can be "counterproductive," says Wenner Moyer.

"If you're really upset and you don't know the family, then of course their instinct is maybe to be defensive and to say, 'My son or my daughter would never do this, how dare you,'" she explains. "And that can just escalate things."

Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescents, agrees, telling Yahoo Life that this approach "will be perceived as an attack and it will put people on the defensive. And really all it will do is escalate the situation because everybody gets defensive about their kids, even if their kids are the bully."

If you do have a relationship with the other parents, and communicate calmly and effectively with them, you can consider addressing the incident. Greenberg recommends approaching it gently and coming up with solutions as a team.

"'How can we as parents calm this situation down?'" she suggests saying. "Nobody really has to be labeled as the bad one or the good one, but [ask] 'how can we make this situation easier and deescalate it for both of our children.'"

But the most productive solution in terms of stopping the bullying, Wenner Moyer says, is to take the matter to the school administrators.

"Sometimes kids say, 'Please don't talk to my teachers,'" she notes. "But when I spoke with anti-bullying researchers, they said it's really important to get the school involved, even you keep the details anonymous. They don't have to talk to the other family necessarily, but it can be helpful to get [administrators] onboard to put together some kind of safety plan that involves having teachers monitor the places where bullying has happened, and come up with bullet points of what the teachers are going to do if they see bullying and what the students should do if they get bullied again. What are the next steps, so that everybody's on board and paying attention?"

Another instinct you'll want to avoid? Retaliation.

"Telling the kids to fight the bullies is really not good advice," says Wenner Moyer. "Often bullies are picking on kids who they really do have some power over in some way — they're bigger than them, or whatnot. So having them fight back isn't always productive."

Don't blast the bully on social media.

You can also advocate for your child without putting a bully on blast via your Facebook page. Though actress and mother of five Tori Spelling recently wrote an impassioned Instagram post about taking her daughter's school and classmates' parents to task over her daughter's treatment, Greenberg warns that airing a bullying situation on social media "is exactly the wrong thing to do for a number of reasons."

Says Greenberg, "Children more than anything need their parents' support ... and how the parents deliver that support makes a tremendous difference. By going on social media and bringing it to another level, [a parent] potentially can exacerbate the problem, because what happens here is the conflict escalates. And then the parents start arguing with one another ... that's not going to be effective in any manner."

"If you attack parents on social media, you're setting up another conflictual relationship on top of the bullying situation," she adds. "And really, even the loveliest people get defensive about their kids."

This approach may also have another downside for the child who has been bullied, Wenner Moyer points out: "It could be embarrassing in some way [or] shaming" to have their personal experience shared publicly.

Don't brush off bullying.

Telling a kid to get over a bullying situation or to toughen up isn't helpful. In more than three decades of her therapy practice, Greenberg has seen firsthand the short- and long-term impacts being bullied can have on a person's mental health, including anxiety, social isolation, depression, the development of phobias and more.

"People have a very hard time forgetting their childhood bullies," she adds. "I speak to plenty of adults who remember the first and last name of their childhood bullies. There's a post-traumatic stress disorder kind of thing that happens. ... It's traumatic being bullied: Going to a place where you're supposed to be safe and then being taunted. The school is supposed to be an emotionally safe space, and when it's not, you have the recipe for all kinds of mental health issues."

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