Q&A with Dr. Nagpal: How do I Stop the Bullying?

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 01/22/2013 - 13:18

A parent writes:

My 7 year old child has occasionally had issues with bullying on the bus. We've talked about how to best handle bullies (telling adults, ignoring them), and he doesn't seem particularly bothered when these things happen, saying that they just want to "push his buttons" although he does seem to have a hard time understanding why people would be mean. However, he recently informed us that a couple of weeks ago, someone punched him on the bus. There wasn't any physical damage, but I'm concerned that he didn't mention it. Should I be concerned? Is there more that I should be doing?

There seem to be several parts to your question: should you be concerned that your child is being bullied  even though it doesn’t seem to bother him? Should you be concerned that he didn’t tell you about an actual physical attack on him? Should you be doing anything different in either case?

I definitely think there is cause for concern whenever a child is being bullied. Some kids do handle bullying by ignoring it or not reacting, which can be a positive if it gets the bullies to go away. However, in your son’s case, that doesn’t seem to be happening because the situation has escalated to physical violence. This time there was “no damage.” But he may not be so lucky the next time. Moreover, kids who experience any type of bullying are more likely to experience depression and low self-esteem.  

So should you be concerned that he didn’t tell you? Keep in mind that many children, even at a very young age are concerned that telling an adult will make the bullying worse. So, first praise your child for keeping his calm in the face of provocation. Then explain to him that sometimes this is not the best approach to dealing  with bullies – case in point being that the bullying didn’t stop in his case, but actually escalated. Ask him the reason/s he didn’t let you know  - was he threatened by the bully, was he afraid to tell in case the bully got mad at him, or was he concerned about how you, as an adult, would react that might make the situation worse for him? However, make it clear that you want to know each time something happens, and you want to help put a stop to it because bullying is not good for anyone. There is evidence that those who bully are more likely to associate themselves with crime later in life. So neither the person being bullied, nor
the bully benefits from it. 

We do know that, despite the best of intentions, sometimes bullying does get worse when adults intervene. This is why addressing bullying is often a complex issue for parents. The first line of defense is teaching the child some assertive responses e.g. telling the bully to stop, and then telling an available adult if it doesn’t stop.You might ask him also how he sees some of his friends dealing with bullies, and who he might be able to ask to help. This might help him come up with some responses of his own and recruit some support from peers. Its also a good idea to role-play some of the scenarios he might encounter.

This being said, there is a point where adults need to intervene, and in my opinion, this typically only happens when the bullying has gone too far. Much emotional damage has already been done by then. So, my advice to you and to your 7-year old is, act assertively and act early. Do not be afraid to be an advocate for your child and contact other adults who need to act on his behalf as well. Unfortunately, there is still much minimization of the impact of bullying, especially when it is verbal, because “it happens everywhere.” 

While this is a fact, it is not true that bullying can’t be reduced or even eliminated, when kids and adults act to create a culture of no tolerance for acts of bullying, while having empathy for those who bully. 

Disclaimer: My responses in this column are for educational purposes only and do not imply a professional relationship. Any contact you have with me through this column does not constitute a client-therapist relationship. It is not possible for me to know your personal situation from the question/s you ask, and therefore the information provided by me should not be considered psychotherapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in Q&A with Dr. Nagpal. Neither myself nor Still Waters Counseling, LLC, or any other entity involved in the creation, support, maintenance, or provision of this column will be liable for any incidental, consequential, or punitive damages arising out of your access to, or use of, this column.

About Me & this Column

I am the co-owner and Director of Programs Development at Still Waters Counseling. I hold independent licenses in both Psychology and Counseling, which means that I can not only practice independently but also supervise others in the field. My 3 passions are writing, teaching, and learning, not necessarily in that order every day. I have been practicing the art of counseling for over 14 years, a venue that often helps me combine all three of my passions. Additionally, I have worked as adjunct faculty at Eastern Michigan University & the University of Toledo, have been published in a professional journal, and am in the process of writing a series of children’s books. I am also very active in the community where I live, serving on Saline Alive! (community group addressing mental health issues in the schools), running for School Board, serving on the Saline Area Schools Strategic Planning Committee & the City of Saline’s Environmental Commission. I am married, have 1 child of my own and 3 step-children, but it would take a book to sum up my varied personal experiences. I will refer to these experiences from time to time when answering your questions.

I will respond to questions once a week. I cannot promise to answer every question asked, but I will do my best. At times I may combine questions, if they are similar or overlapping. If you wish to reach me outside of this column, you can contact me at [email protected]. I will return emails as soon as I am able. Please do not use this email for a mental health emergency.