Have you talked to your kids about bullying?

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By Sabrina Almeida

Ten days into the school year, the kids are probably still adjusting to the routine, new teacher and classmates. Check on how they are coping with their studies as well as on the playground.

While most parents wouldn’t hesitate to ask questions about the new class teacher and curriculum, the critical subject of having friends and fitting in is often ignored. Especially among South Asians who expect their kids to be tough and take it all in their stride.

Now is a good time as any to start a conversation about bullying and no matter how many times you have talked about it before. Situations can escalate quickly. Early intervention is key to ensuring your child’s physical and mental well-being as well as preventing a tragedy.

The heart-breaking story of Brandon Rayat, a 15-year-old school boy from Leicester, UK who hanged himself recently as a result of bullying reiterates the serious of the problem. At the inquest, his parents revealed that Brandon was victimized for being good looking and popular with girls. This shatters a myth that victims are typically unpopular kids.

The bullies were relentless both in school and online—calling him a f**got, pedophile and threatening to rape his mother. The teenager even shaved his head to “fit in” with the perpetrators but the bullying continued.

As in many cases, his parents were not aware of the problem till he had a breakdown. After which they referred him for professional help. As a consequence of having suffered physical, psychological and online abuse for more than a year, the boy tried to kill himself on a number of occasions and finally succeeded.

Bullying can take many forms including physical, verbal and cyber as well as be perpetrated by a single individual or group. Kids of all ages are vulnerable. While a kindergartner I know was isolated by a group of classmates who did not let anyone play with her during recess, a high-school student was subjected to verbal abuse in the hallways and cafeteria for more than a year. (Research shows that ostracism is a fairly common form of bullying in grade school.)  It is also important to understand that no one, no matter how strong and well-balanced, is insulated from bullying.

A report from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research revealed at least 1 in 3 adolescent students in Canada have reported being bullied recently and that 47% of Canadian parents reported having a child victim of bullying. It also pointed out that any participation in bullying increases risk of suicidal ideas in youth. Remember Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old from British Columbia who also ended her life as a result of bullying?

Children often find it difficult to talk their parents or teachers about bullying. Fear could be the main reason why. This makes recognizing signs of bullying early essential to giving your child the help and protection they need. Not wanting to go the school is the most common. This could manifest as being afraid to go or complaining about feeling unwell. Unexplained or frequent bruising, changes in mood and behaviour could also indicate your child is being bullied.

Child psychologists and mental health experts say that keeping the lines of communication open and talking to your kids about their day can provide valuable insights. Subtle questions about who they played with and sat next to on the bus can provide clues about how they are getting along. Encouraging these daily conversations will make such questions routine and hopefully get them to open up or bring any problems they might be facing to you.

Educating them about what bullying is and bullies are like also makes them more aware and can help them stand up to bullies or help other victims.

Reiterate the importance of asking an adult (parents, teachers and counsellors) for help. Also talk about strategies to stay safe. Like avoiding situations where they might be alone with the bully, using a buddy system, walking away from a situation and most important to tell an adult.

Most kids have been teased or bullied at some stage in their lives. Therefore parents must acknowledge and tackle the problem head on rather than ask kids to “tough it out”. Not providing a ‘listening ear’ and guidance they need can take a toll on their physical and emotional health, and with disastrous consequences.

Equally important is to be calm, reassuring and supportive if your child tells you they are being bullied. Being angry or showing disappointment that your child didn’t stand up to the bully can make a bad situation worse. This might also discourage them from talking about their problems and asking for help when they need it.

How do you handle bullying in school? Talk to the school authorities about the issue. Encourage your child to pursue positive friendships and enroll them in activities that will build their confidence.

It is time to recognize that bullying exists and prepare your child to deal with it in the right way.

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