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

You send your child out into the world and hope people will adore and understand them as much as you do. The reality is, however, that one out of every four students (22 percent) report 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, 2008)

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.

Matthew Witham, manager of Child and Family Services at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, says it’s important for parents to know when teasing crosses the line into full-blown bullying. “Although teasing has an element that can be hurtful,” Witham explains, “there’s a continuum that goes from gentle teasing to bullying. What may seem gentle to one child – knocking hats off or unkind words – may feel like bullying to a more vulnerable individual.”

Witham is pleased anti-bullying campaigns are getting attention and adds that curbing bullying is crucial for a child's overall success at school. "Bullying goes beyond a single event," Witham says. "In most cases it is systematic and leads to a child being hypervigilant, preoccupied with avoiding bullying situations and fearful. Fear is never a good ingredient for successful learning."

He says teamwork between parents and teachers is the key to really helping kids feel safe so they can explore, learn and be creative. "It's important for the adults to act in a responsible, thoughtful way when a child tells them they're being bullied," Witham cautions. "If a parent or teacher decides to confront a child's bully directly that can escalate the situation and actually make things worse because the child can be a target for retribution."

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.

Parents never want to see their children struggle with teasing or bullying. Instead of feeling helpless, use the issue as an opportunity to start a classroom conversation about friendship and kindness. A book for elementary-aged students, called “It’s Okay to Ask,” is an ideal tool to begin a positive discussion that will empower you and your child. The book is written by experts at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare and illustrated by Twin Cities artist Nancy Carlson.

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