Sticks and stones may break bones, the adage begins. And while some may agree with the ending–that words will never hurt, verbal bullying and cyberbullying can in fact be extremely harmful for many, both mentally and physically.
“Bullied children and adolescents often feel trapped and hopeless– like the situation is unsolvable. Some do contemplate suicide as a means of stopping the hurt,” says Dr. Gabrielle Roberts, a clinical psychologist with Advocate Children’s Hospital.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as youth violence, “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”
One Yale School of Medicine study established a connection between being bullied and suicide in children. And in 2015, Chicago Public Schools even adopted an anti-bullying policy in response to an uptick in complaints.
“A safe and civil school environment is necessary for students to learn and achieve and that bullying causes physical, psychological, and emotional harm to students and interferes with their ability to learn and participate in school activities,’’ the policy says.
Dr. Roberts has explored bullying in depth and is a supporter of school-wide bullying intervention programs, especially in the world of Twitter and Instagram.
“While bullying has long been a problem, the growth of the internet and social media has created another means by which children are being targeted. Cyberbullying offers anonymity and larger audiences for bullying. It also extends bullying from schools and the community into the child’s home– formerly a safe haven from school bullies,” she says.
Dr. Roberts and other experts say the best ways to help children cope is by talking to them, as well as working together with school personnel and, in some cases, counseling services to help them deal with the situation.
She says a parent’s approach to the topic should be direct and sensitive.
“If you have concern that your child is being bullied, ask,’’ she says. “Ask direct questions about bullies and bullying, but also ask questions about friends and peer group changes that you have noticed. Ask them to tell you about their new friends or friends they no longer see,’’ Dr. Roberts says.
She counsels her patients to reach out for help if they are feeling bullied, and advises parents to watch for mood and behavior changes in response to bullying. Those warning signs include: