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Words Can Break Your Heart

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“Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”—Robert Fulghum

Online learning and the COVID-19 lockdown has brought more opportunities for cyberbullying, according to children's mental health experts.

Previously, when classes were in-person, one out of every four students (22 percent) reported being bullied during the school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Parents of children who have disabilities might feel even more anxious about bullying and research shows these concerns are well-founded. One study shows 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly. (Source: British Journal of Learning Support)

October is National Bullying Prevention Month founded by Minnesota-based PACER. The campaign is aimed at uniting communities to educate and raise awareness about bullying prevention.

During the past decade much has been done to curb bullying in schools. Minnesota’s Safe and Supportive Schools Act went into effect in 2014. The law requires school districts to investigate and track cases of bullying and to better train teachers and school staff on ways to prevent bullying.

The statistics show more work needs to be done and parents are often the best resource to help their children navigate this emotional and sometimes dangerous issue.

COVID-19 has brought increased risk of cyberbullying for children because of their increased use of technology according to Matthew Witham, PhD, manager of Child and Family Services at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare,

"Children are on the internet and social media platforms more than ever," Witham says. "Because families are regularly juggling multiple demands, there is decreased caregiver supervision of digital activities." 

Witham adds, "Tracking online behavior has become increasingly more challenging for parents in our COVID-19 world. The increased reliance upon technology for schooling and social connection makes youth more vulnerable to cyber-victimization." 

Witham is pleased anti-bullying campaigns continue to get attention during the pandemic, but adds cyberbullying creates new challenges to anti-bullying initiatives. He reminds people that psychological safety is crucial for a child's overall academic success. 

"Bullying disrupts children's sense of safety and compromises their ability to learn," Witham says. "Children may be worried about losing access to their devices if they report being bullied. Proactively talk to your child about bullying and let them know you're there for support. Even if you don't have it all worked out, just starting the conversation will let your child know you are someone interested in talking with them if they ever feel victimized." 

Bullying is more calculated, intense and persistent than teasing. In some cases, it can be a learned behavior—from TV shows, computer games, or family members. If the teasing isn’t too intense, these strategies may help. But if it persists or worsens, parents shouldn’t hesitate to intervene.

  • Take charge:  Your child can’t control the teasers, but can control his response. Advise your child not to engage with the teasers—and if possible, walk away. Ignoring teasing may make it worse for a while, but when bullies see that teasing no longer works, it will no longer be “fun.”
  • Stay calm. Kids who tease want to see that they’re bothering your child. Encourage her to take some deep breaths or count to 10.
  • Reject the teasing:  Just because someone says something in a loud voice doesn’t mean your child has to accept it. Tell your child to think of the words as rubber balls that bounce off him, or to imagine he has a shield that deflects mean words.
  • Say “So?”: “So?” is a way of saying that teasing doesn’t matter. If your child sends the message that she isn’t scared or bothered, the bully might back off.
  • Stay in a group: Bullies tend to pick on kids who are alone. Encourage your child to stay away from kids who tease, if possible, and to find people who share his interests. Having even one good, supportive friend can help. 
  • Play it safe:  Emphasize that it’s okay to ask for help. If your child has told the teaser to stop, and the teasing continues or worsens, or if it becomes physical, she should tell an adult right away.

If your child or teen has mental health needs related to a disability or complex condition, Gillette offers psychological evaluations. We might also recommend a psychological testing evaluation if you have concerns about your child’s cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral functioning. Our goal is to identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  

To make an appointment with the Gillette psychology team please call 651-290-8707.

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