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An Open Letter from a Pediatrician: Talking to Your Kids About Bullying

Published on Oct. 05, 2022

Dear loving parents,

With school being back in session, you -- as parents and community members – might be finding yourselves in situations where you want to talk to your children about bullying, or how to deal with bullying. That is a great topic and I would love to share some ways to open the conversation with your kids! 

First and foremost, we need to understand what bullying is. Bullying is a form of violence where one person or a group of people perform unwanted aggressive behaviors towards another individual, typically repetitively, and usually involves an imbalance of power between the individuals. It can be physical (e.g. hitting, kicking), verbal (e.g. name calling), relational (spreading rumors, excluding and ignoring) or cyber (e.g. social media, texting). Being bullied can lead to long-term health consequences such as having panic attacks, anxiety, difficulty going out in the crowds and depression, to name a few. Being a bully can also lead to long-term problems such as a higher risk of dropping out of school or using drugs, as well as fighting. One of the most important concepts to understand is that anyone can be a bully, even your own child, which I know is difficult to hear. 

Now that we have a better understanding of what bullying is, before discussing it with your child, we need to understand the ways that we can prevent this from happening. One of the first things to do is talk to the school; bring up the subject with them and let them know that it’s occurring on their school grounds. Zero tolerance policies for bullying and detention tend not to be effective while empowering children to step in and protect the person who is being bullied has proven to be more affective. Additionally, having more adult supervision at times like recess and lunch can allow them to intervene when bullying is occurring.

One phrase that I’ve learned is, “walk-talk-squawk.” Walk away and ignore the hurtful remarks, make confident statements to the bully and disclose the event to an adult. An important remark about cyberbullying is to not take away their phone or stop them from using social media. This fear can prevent them from wanting to disclose that information with you in the future. One option is to block individuals who send hurtful messages or post them. Sometimes children who have been bullied for a while may have unwanted feelings that they find difficult to express. Therapy is a great resource to express feelings to someone who can help them go through it. Lastly, improving a child’s self-esteem will help them feel more confident and be less affected by what bullies are doing. Ways to bolster self-esteem can be by making new friends and enrolling in extracurricular activities like sports.

Now that we’ve described what bullying is and ways to approach it, how do you talk to your child about bullying? It can be difficult and may not be easy the first time, but that’s okay, you will get better. First, I recommend sitting down in a calm and friendly environment while being non-judgmental and asking open-ended questions. This allows your child to speak freely as well as develop an additional layer of trust with you. There should be no repercussions, such as losing access to social media for disclosing this information with you. Start with asking if anyone is mean to them at school or if they've noticed anyone else being picked on. For older children, ask if anyone has sent them hurtful messages or posted about them online in a mean way or about someone else. If they have, ask them how that makes them feel and explore it. Ask if they’ve ever felt like they wanted to step in and protect the individual. Stepping in can help prevent bullying. Teach them “walk-talk-squawk” and empower them to use it by role-playing with them to practice. Not only do you get to empower them, but you also get to spend quality time with them.

I hope that you can take this information and discuss it with your child!

Dr. Horowitz, Valley Children’s pediatrician


About the Author

Dr. Isaac Horowitz is a Valley Children’s pediatrician at San Dimas Pediatrics in Bakersfield.