MGH pediatrician and child abuse prevention expert Dr. Alice Newton shares ways to identify bullying and how to help victims, bystanders and bullies.

As a pediatrician, I see the consequences of bullying in my own patients on a daily basis, with school refusal, impact on learning, decreased ability to form relationships with other students, and many somatic symptoms that influence the quality of life for bullying victims. Additionally, my interest in child abuse has taught me that children who bully may be the victims of emotional abuse or witnessed trauma in their homes. Both victims and bullies deserve attention from parents and healthcare providers to enable them to overcome the problems associated with bullying behaviors.

MGHFCAs the school year gets underway, it is important to remind parents and caregivers to be aware of the signs of bullying among school-aged children and to discuss ways to prevent and address bullying.

What is bullying?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, bullying is when “one child picks on another child again and again. Usually children who are being bullied are either weaker or smaller or are shy and generally feel helpless.” Bullying is more than teasing; it is when one child has power of the other child.

“Both victims and bullies deserve attention from parents and healthcare providers to enable them to overcome the problems associated with bullying behaviors.”

How do I know if my child is being bullied?

Here are some questions that you can ask your child that may help you learn if he or she is being bullied.

  • How are things going at school?
  • Sometimes kids get picked on at school. Have you noticed anyone in your class get picked on or bullied?
  • Do you ever feel afraid to go to school?
  • Do kids bully you in the neighborhood, at school or online?
  • Who can you go to for help?

Sometimes the victim of bullying will have headaches, stomach aches and sleep issues. Be alert that these could be signs of stress due to bullying.

These are positive influences that have been shown to reduce the likelihood of bullying:

  • Safe neighborhood
  • Parental warmth and monitoring
  • Strong friendships with other children
  • Connection with a caring adult
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There are bullies, victims and bystanders. There are important lessons for all three groups.

Victims
If your child is a victim of bullying, you should talk to the child’s teacher, guidance counselor and school principal. All schools in Massachusetts must have an anti-bullying policy that forbids any bullying on school property or buses to/from school or through the use of school technology. All schools must have intervention plans and must report incidents of bullying to the state. Work closely with your child’s school to stop the bullying behavior.

Also, you can teach your child that if he or she is confronted by a bully:

  • Look the bully in the eye
  • Stay calm
  • Respond in a firm voice
  • Walk away to get help

Bystander
Even if your child is not being bullied, he or she can play an important role in stopping another child from being bullied. Teach your child to identify if another child is being bullied and talk to them about what they could do. Suggestions include: finding a teacher, parent or grown up or telling the bully “that’s not OK, please stop.”

Bullies
Both boys and girls can be bullies and they target their victims at school, playgrounds or online, through emails or instant messaging or social media sites. Bullies continually tease or spread rumors about another child and try to control them by making the other child afraid. Bullying behavior in young children that is not addressed has been shown to lead to long-term negative outcomes.

What if my child is the bully?
If you suspect or know that your child is bullying another child, it is best to talk to your child right away. If he/she is bullying another child, talk to him or her and explain that this behavior is not OK. Explain how this hurts another child. You should set limits on aggressive behavior, be a positive role model, and work with teachers, counselors and others to find positive ways to stop the bullying.

For more information, please contact us.

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Alice Newton, MD, is the medical director of the Child Protection Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, working with a team which evaluates children who may be victims of child maltreatment. Dr. Newton sits on the Massachusetts Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Board, and is the medical director of the Massachusetts Pediatric SANE Program. She is a member of the Suffolk County Child Fatality Review Committee, the Massachusetts Shaken Baby Prevention Coalition, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Massachusetts Medical Society.