Lately, a topic that troublingly comes up often in my work is bullying. Parents and children alike are seeking answers to how they can stop this seemingly ubiquitous problem. I primarily treat and study children with special health care needs who are more susceptible to bullying, perhaps because they are perceived as “different.” For example, according to a large sample of children with a food allergy, a startling 45 percent have experienced bullying (Shemesh et al., 2013). Some children reported bullying specifically due to the food allergy while others described it more generally. Bullying typically occurred in schools and the various forms of bullying faced included physical acts, teasing, as well as other disturbing incidents such as having offending foods waved at them.
As we seek answers, fortunately there is a solid research base on bullying and anti-bullying interventions that we can draw from. Below, I offer some ideas for what parents can do, what we can tell our children, and finally some thoughts on the impact of bullying on mental health.
Bullying appears to be a phenomenon that mainly occurs in schools. Large-scale, school-based interventions from the United States and Europe have been promising in regards to creating safe environments and subsequently decreasing bullying and victimization. The framework behind such approaches is that bullying is a systemic problem and therefore its solution requires cooperation across different stakeholders (e.g., parents, students, teachers) as well as overall changes to school culture. Recently, my group examined follow-up data from our original sample of food allergic children who reported their experiences with bullying (Annunziato et al., in press). One year later, we found that the strongest predictor of bullying remission was parental action. That is, when parents did something specific such as speaking to school personnel, bullying was more likely to cease. But, we also found that a large proportion of parents are unaware of their child’s bullying. Among the children who described being bullied, just 58 percent of parents were aware of it. Therefore, the first step towards stopping bullying is making sure that parents know when it’s happening. And so, the best guidance that I can offer parents is to ask (over and over again) about bullying and then if uncovered reach out to school personnel. By working together, parents and school personnel can take effective action on behalf of individuals as well as make an even broader impact on the problem.
When talking with your child about bullying, he/she may well be curious or anxious to know what to do about it. Research has illuminated the “bystander effect,” that is, the importance of teaching student bystanders how to prevent rather than reinforce bullying behavior (Salmivalli, Voeten, & Poskiparta, 2011). A safe piece of advice that we can offer our children is to ignore bullying and to tell us or their teachers when it is occurring.
Finally, bullying can certainly take an emotional toll on victims and bystanders alike. We all have seen the horrifying stories in the media to this effect. Mental health professionals can help treat these symptoms and also support parents with school-based efforts to address the problem. If parents suspect that their child may be experiencing such symptoms in the wake of bullying, consultation with a pediatrician or mental health provider is a helpful way to decide on whether additional services might be warranted.
Annunziato, R.A., Rubes, M., Ambrose, M.A., Mullarkey, C., Shemesh, E., & Sicherer, S.H. (In press). Longitudinal evaluation of food allergy related bullying. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.
Salmivalli, C., Voeten, M., & Poskiparta, E. (2011). Bystanders matter: Associations between reinforcing, defending, and the frequency of bullying behavior in classrooms. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40(5), 668-676.
Shemesh, E., Annunziato, R.A., Ambrose, M., Ravid, N, Mullarkey, C., Rubes, M., Chuang, K., Sicherer, M., & Sicherer, S.H. (2013). Child and parental reports of bullying in a consecutive sample of children with food allergy. Pediatrics, 131(1), e10-7.