October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Most people have been teased at some point in their lives, so what is the difference between teasing and bullying and what is the big deal? When the teasing is meant to be harmful, becomes repetitive and begins to have a negative impact on the person being teased, it crosses the line into bullying. And it does not matter what anyone else thinks, if the person being targeted believes it is bullying, then it is. Their perspective is the most important.

Bullying can be verbal, physical or psychological. It can include hitting, name-calling, avoidance, destroying the victim’s property, etc. In addition, with the increase of social media, cyber-bullying is on the rise. Most bullying is targeted towards the same gender, with boys tending to be more physical and girls tending to be more verbal. Bullying most often occurs in school and it can turn daily occurrences such as waiting for the bus or eating lunch into a nightmare. Bullying can lead to emotional, physical and social consequences inclusive of headaches, low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse and even suicidal or homicidal acts. Therefore, bullying IS a big deal and it’s important to take it seriously. Here are some tips to help your child or teen deal with bullies.

First, talk about bullying. Start at a young age, making it part of your child’s social development. Encourage positive social interactions such as sharing in order to build empathy. Talk about what makes someone a good friend. These strategies are important to both prevent your child from becoming a bully and to help them recognize when they are being bullied. We try to protect our children against danger such as warning them not to talk with strangers. Talking about bullying behavior should be no different. Do not wait until it becomes a problem to talk about it.

Second, listen to your child and ask questions. One of the most important differences between teasing and bullying is how the victim perceives the situation. What one child may take as teasing, may have a significant impact on a different child. Ask your child questions such as how such interactions make them feel. How did they respond? Will the incident alter their behaviors? Ask how you or anyone else may be of help.

Third, watch for signs and symptoms. Your child might not tell you that they are the victim of bullying but their behaviors will. Does your child suddenly not want to attend school? Does your child or teen appear sad, withdrawn or irritable? Do they avoid socializing outside of school? As a parent, you will most likely be able to tell when something is not right with your child or teen. It might take a little investigative work, or even the help of a counselor for your child or teen to talk with, but don’t ignore behavioral or emotional signs. Even if you think you are overreacting, it is better to be safe than to be in denial.

Fourth, enhance self-esteem. This is quite important for several reasons. A child or teen with low self-esteem is often an easy target for bullies. And then a cycle is begun, whereby the bullying behavior leads to even lower self-esteem which leads to even more bullying. Also, a higher level of self-esteem is a protective factor against bullying. If your child or teen is teased yet they feel good about themselves, the teasing is less likely to have a negative impact. So, praise your child or teen, focusing on their positive actions and achievements. Involve them in an activity which they enjoy, so that they feel that they have a support group and a space to belong. Encourage them to participate in activities which they are good at. And also encourage them to challenge themselves, as the pride that accompanies overcoming difficulties is a great self-confidence booster.

Finally, the above suggestions also apply if your child IS the bully. After all, children who bully have just as many difficulties as their victims do. Children often bully to gain attention, to feel a sense of power or control and to feel important. This can be taken to mean that bullies often feel a sense of powerlessness or that they feel poorly about themselves. Again, talk with your children, listen to them, pay attention to their behaviors, build their self-esteem and encourage empathy. And above all, do not tolerate meanness, gossip, bigotry, belittling or hatred towards others no matter what!