Is Your Kid Being Bullied?
According to the 2021 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a staggering 41% of Vermont middle school students say they’ve been bullied at school.
Kids who are neurodiverse, gender-diverse or autistic are especially at risk, says Jeremiah Dickerson, MD, a child psychiatrist and the program director of the psychiatry residency program at The University of Vermont Medical Center.
“By the time kids reach middle school, social expectations are very nuanced,” says Dr. Dickerson. “It takes a lot of skill for a typical preteen to navigate that with finesse. You add autism into the equation, and that adds another layer of vulnerability.”
Research shows that LGBTQIA2S+ middle and high school students are twice as likely to experience bullying compared to their heterosexual cisgender peers. By the time they get to high school, those same kids are four times more likely to report self-harm, make a plan to kill themselves or attempt to kill themselves.
The same association between bullying, poor mental health and suicide risk is also there for students who have physical disabilities.
What all of these groups have in common, says Dr. Dickerson, is that they are perceived as being different.
“It’s in our biology to separate out ‘us vs them.’ There’s an evolutionary component to it,” Dr. Dickerson acknowledges. “But continuing to engage in that mindset can be really unhealthy. That’s why it’s so important to create an inclusive culture early on and to build communities based on empathy.”
What Can a Parent Do to Help?
Here are Dr. Dickerson’s answers to questions parents commonly ask when trying to help their kids navigate these difficult years.
1. Can talking about differences between people just make things worse?
Avoiding discussion of differences can be just as harmful as saying things that are disrespectful about those who are different, says Dr. Dickerson.
“Starting in preschool, families should talk about differences in a way that acknowledges them, but doesn’t make anyone less worthy. The key is seeing differences not just through a negative lens,” says Dr. Dickerson. Talk about what you’re seeing, but don’t pass any judgment.
“You can’t not acknowledge differences, because denial or lack of discussion tends to raise more questions among kids. Or they seek out answers on their own among peers or online, which may not be as well-informed or well-nuanced as we’d like them to be,” he says.
2. When does teasing become bullying?
“This is a complicated one,” says Dr. Dickerson. “We grew up hearing ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ – but we now know for sure that’s just not true. Names can hurt and can cause significant psychological and even physical harm,” he says.
The distinction between harmless teasing and harmful bullying can come down to several factors, he says, including:
- Intent. “Teasing is often underscored by humor and lightheartedness, while the goal of a bully may be much more deliberate and malicious,” Dr. Dickerson says.
- Power. Often with bullying there’s a power differential – real or perceived – between bully and victim. In contrast, teasing happens among friends, peers and equals.
- The experience of who's being teased/bullied. This is probably the most important factor, Dr. Dickerson says, because everything is relative. “Something that hurts you may not hurt me, and vice-versa.”
3. What are some signs I should watch out for, to know if my kid may be bullied?
Parents should watch for unexplained changes in behavior, such as sleep or eating habits. Kids who are being bullied don’t usually come home and complain about it, Dr. Dickerson notes. Instead, they may be more likely to hide or internalize their feelings.
A child who is avoidant, isolative, or refusing to be social may be hiding something. And always ask about unexplained physical injuries.
4. What do I do if I suspect my child is being bullied?
Be curious, not judgmental, and ask broad questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no. For example, says Dr. Dickerson, try saying, “I’ve noticed X. What’s going on?” Or “What’s it like being in school with these particular students?”
“It can be easy for both parents and children to push things down or avoid conversation, especially if there’s shame attached,” says Dr. Dickerson. “But these things shouldn’t be ignored.” Parents also need to pay attention to their own emotional responses when suspecting or learning that their child is being hurt. To best support your child, try to remain calm and avoid responding with hostility, anger and threatening actions.
5. Should I confront the bully or the bully’s parents?
No. Evidence suggests that’s not helpful and may make things worse. “People have tried to bring the perpetrator and the victim together to have discussions, but the outcomes of that are usually not positive," says Dr. Dickerson. “For some kids, it can be re-traumatizing.”
If you suspect that your child is being bullied, reach out to the school right away to engage the help of guidance counselors, teachers and administrators.
6. What can I do to help my kid build confidence and resilience?
Help your child cultivate positive peer relationships based on shared interests, such as music, scouting, sports, art or academics. This is helpful for all children, but particularly for those who may feel different, says Dr. Dickerson.
“It’s important for parents to find a community of like-minded kids, and to do their absolute best to affirm their identity,” he says. “Even though that may evoke a lot of emotion in a parent, we have to put that aside and ask ourselves, ‘What can I do to support my child in the here and now?’” In the case of gender and sexual identities, parents should also keep in mind that those can shift over time, and that is itself developmentally appropriate.
Help your child identify a safe person, especially in the school setting. “Ask them, ‘If you’re feeling bad or sad at school, who are the people you can talk to?’”
“Finally, make sure your child is surrounded by people who appreciate their differences and who they feel safe with,” says Dr. Dickerson. “Community builds resiliency.”
Help is Available
If you or your child are thinking about suicide or need emotional support, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline now. Call or text 988, or click here to chat online. It’s free, confidential and available 24/7.
The Trevor Project also offers free, confidential help and information for LGBTQ+ young people. They can call, text or chat confidentially with Trevor Project counselors 24/7.
For bullying and cyberbullying guidance and resources for parents, teens and kids, visit StopBullying.gov.