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Your child is being bullied – should you intervene?

About eight per cent of Canadian students between 12 and 19 years old report being bullied on a weekly basis, Public Safety Canada reports.
About eight per cent of Canadian students between 12 and 19 years old report being bullied on a weekly basis, Public Safety Canada reports. Getty Images

It’s a dilemma parents struggle with: should they, or should they not intervene when a child – especially their child – is being bullied?

While some believe children should learn how to handle conflicts themselves, others think parents have all the right to step in to help their child. But who’s right?

According to parenting expert Gail Bell of Parenting Power, the latter is what parents should be doing – but only if the situation falls into the actual realm of bullying, and not typical friendship issue many continue to confuse as bullying.

READ MORE: ‘Roasting’ is a new cyberbullying trend and it has experts worried

“First we have to acknowledge what the definition of bullying is,” Bell says. “We use that word very freely now. Bullying is a terrible thing and it is real, but it doesn’t happen very often. So we have to first clarify if what’s happening is just friendship issues or social issues, or is this bullying?”

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In fact, only about eight per cent of students between the ages of 12 and 19 report being bullied on a weekly basis, Public Safety Canada says.

The RCMP defines bullying as “when there is an imbalance of power; where someone purposely and repeatedly says or does hurtful things to someone else.” Bullying can take on several forms including physical, verbal and social, which is when friends and relationships are used to hurt someone.

“Bullying is a dangerous and scary thing for kids,” Bell explains. “Bullying is a planned, repeated and focused attack on a specific child and it is with intent.”

What is not, however, is disagreements within a peer group, a fight with a friend or being left out of activities, Bell says. Unless it is done repeatedly with a vicious intent and/or includes force or threat, it is nothing more than just regular and normal conflict that kids will experience growing up.

“We have to educate ourselves on what bullying actually is,” Bell says. “We have to be very careful how we use that word in the home.”

How to know when your child is being bullied

Not every kid who’s being bullied will tell someone about it, especially an adult.

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“Kids who are being bullied are scared and there’s a lot of intimidation and sometimes there’s threats,” Bell explains.

So parents really need to pay attention to the signs, Bell says, as well as monitor their child’s technology (not in a sneaky way, but in an open and honest way, Bell clarifies).

Parents should pay attention to any changes in their child’s behaviour, Bell adds. This can include waking up sad, having issues sleeping, becoming quiet or more introverted and a disruption in their eating.

Other signs kids display according to PREVNet include:

  • Appearing anxious or fearful
  • Low self-esteem and making negative comments
  • Complains of feeling unwell (like headaches or stomach aches)
  • Not wanting to go to school or participate in activities
  • Irritability
  • Injuries, bruising, damaged clothing
  • Threats to hurt themselves or others
  • May appear isolated from their peer group

A 2014 study done by the University of Warwick also found that nightmares may be a sign that a child is being bullied.

“Nightmares are relatively common in childhood, while night terrors occur in up to 10 per cent of children,” lead author Suzet Tanya Lereya said in a statement. “If either occurs frequently or over a prolonged period of time, they may indicate that a child/adolescent has or is being bullied by peers. These arousals in sleep may indicate significant distress for the child.”

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What parents need to do

It’s imperative that parents step in when their child is being bullied, Bell says.

First, Bell says, is for parents not to react.

“The 24-hour rule is an amazing thing,” she says. “So when a child comes home upset – breathe and don’t start sending that text or email or make that phone call just yet. Wait 24 hours. Sometimes these things do work themselves out.”

Next, gather all the evidence you need – including social media posts – and present it to school administration.

This way, Bell says, both the parents and school can work collectively on tackling the issue and making the school a safe place for the bullied child.

READ MORE: Childhood bullying victims more likely to be overweight: study

“Take facts and keep the emotions out of it,” Bell advises. “Go into the meeting calmly, because what you’re looking for is help, and administration is there to help – they’re trained to help. They’ll be able to give you some ideas on what to do at home, and they’ll give you an idea of what they can do at school.”

But there is no need to go to school administration if this is a friendship issue and not a bullying issue, Bell stresses. So make sure that what your kid is experiencing is, in fact, bullying.

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It’s also important to note that some forms of bullying can be considered illegal, the RCMP points out.

These include:

  • Death threats or serious bodily harm
  • Criminal harassment
  • Distribution of intimate images without consent
  • Assaults

If this is the case, then parents are urged to report it to their local police department or report it to CyberTip.ca, the RCMP says. From there, police will decide if an investigation is needed and whether charges will be laid.

What if your child is the bully?

It’s not an easy thing for parents to hear that their child is the one doing the bullying.

But nonetheless, parents need to get involved to stop the bullying from happening further.

The importance of parental involvement has been proven over the years by several studies, including a 2010 study by researchers at the University of Texas.

The study looked at 45,897 parents with children between the ages of 10 and 17. Among the questions asked to parents was whether their child bullied or was cruel or mean to others.

Researchers found that the prevalence of bullying was 15 per cent. But parents who played a protective role by sharing ideas and talking with their child, as well those who met most of their child’s friends, were less likely to have children who bullied.

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“Kids who bully do it as a need for attention,” Bell says. “What we can do is acknowledge and accept and not to blame or shame anybody, and get them help.”

Signs that may allude to a child being a bully according to PREVNet include:

  • Bossy and manipulative behaviours
  • Aggressiveness with parents, siblings, pets and friends
  • Low concern for others’ feelings
  • Unexplained money or objects
  • Being secretive about possessions and activities
  • They become easily frustrated and quick to anger

“As parents, we have to look at how we’re raising our kids and ask ourselves why they feel special or are above others, and why do they feel they need that empowerment,” Bell says. “If a child is truly bullying, then it just wouldn’t be the parents who are working with that child, it would be school administration would be involved and perhaps a psychologist, which is a good thing.”