When my oldest were my youngest, the idea of cyberbullying wasn’t even a twinkle in their father’s eye. We dealt with bullying on the playground, in the classroom and at after-school events. But today, my youngest is faced with other children who feel the only way to communicate their frustrations is through bullying others over their phone or in social media.
Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying follows your kids home and can hunt them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It can devastate entire families and follow your children into adulthood. If your children have any online activity, one study shows 87% of teens have witnessed bullying and may have been the recipient. Unfortunately, the problem is only growing so it’s important that we arm ourselves as parents in order to recognize the symptoms in our children and learn how to help them face down cyber bullies in a way not possible face-to-face.
My Daughter’s Story
Last year my youngest daughter got in the middle of a discussion between two friends. One was a girl she considered a good friend and the other was a young man who attended the same school. Unfortunately, her girlfriend suffered from significant self-esteem issues from her home situation and looked for attention anyway she could get it. She ended up taking a screenshot of part of a conversation and, taken out of context, sent it to another young man. Eventually the whole thing broke blew up in my daughter’s face and she was a pariah at school for several months.
Fortunately, she had strong friends who understood what others were saying about her could not be true and they stood by her. It was the only thing that made going to school bearable for her.
One of the primary focuses of my day, each day, is to ensure that I keep the lines of communication open with my children. I found throughout the years that this has kept me in good stead with them and helps them to overcome their challenges. I’m not the best cook, I don’t always remember when something has to be brought to school, I can’t stand going to baseball games and I’m not always the biggest cheerleader in their athletic endeavors; but I have kept open lines of communication with my children so they can discuss whatever they feel is necessary or whatever is going on in their lives.
I didn’t do it on purpose. It wasn’t planned. It likely happened because my mom and I didn’t have good communication and for many years I didn’t even think she liked me. And so, I wanted to be sure my children knew and understood they were loved and I listen to everything they said. Quite by accident, they understood they could come to me and ask questions and tell me what was going on because I would listen.
Digital and Traditional IS Different
As parents, it is vital that we understand the signs of children who are being cyberbullied. It isn’t the same as being bullied at school and how the kids act will be different. Unfortunately, the number of children who are being bullied at school or digitally has made it a national epidemic. According to a study in the Journal of School Health, 19% of elementary school children are bullied and more than 160,000 stay home from school because they fear being bullied at school.
These situations have traumatic consequences, they lead to poor school performance, low self-esteem and even depression. In research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found children who were bullied by age 8 were more prone to psychological problems as teens and early adults, and another found elementary school students who are victims are 80% more likely to feel sad on most days.
As kids become more active on social media sites, cyberbullying has become more prevalent. Although you might think of cyberbullying as abusive messages, they can also include sharing inappropriate images or videos, creating pages or accounts with a purpose of harassing someone, sending viruses or revealing someone’s personal information, such as an address or phone number. Another study found an overlap between individuals who are more prone to bully somebody in the traditional sense and those who go online.
It’s important to talk to your kids and ask if they are the victim of a cyberbully, or are in fact themselves bullying someone else. Both children are the victims. It’s important to remember that both the bully and the child being bullied are both children or teenagers and are not fully formed individuals. Both are under the influence of adults and influential people in their life and both need the support and help of safe adults to help them grow into strong and independent people.
When you’re the mom of the child is being bullied it’s easy to overlook the emotional trauma of the child doing the bullying. But the bully is someone’s son or daughter and it’s important to keep that in mind as you move forward and help your child to prepare themselves for the future or to stand up to someone today.
It’s important that your child recognizes when it’s happening. Sometimes a child whose the target of bullying understands the sick, sinking feeling in his stomach or the shame and humiliation he’s feeling, but he needs to recognize that when this happens it must also be addressed. It’s a perfect time to talk to your child about what it feels like to stand in someone else’s shoes. Fortunately, most are of us are born with an inherent sense of empathy but it’s a skill we need to learn how to tap into so when others need our help we can be there.
Talk to your children about the difference between teasing and laughing with someone versus laughing AT someone else’s expense. They understand the difference when they’re the target but sometimes it’s difficult to see the difference when you’re on the other side of things.
Find a Trusted Adult
It’s also a good time to help your child recognize a trusted adult in their life to whom they can turn to if you’re not available or they’re not comfortable talking to you about what’s being sent to them. This adult must take the situation seriously, must not overreact and must help support your child so they don’t develop feelings of hopelessness or regret. This is why it’s important to identify an adult that you and your child trust to do the right thing and why it’s important that adult is notified prior to being needed.
A trusted adult is someone who listens with kindness and helps her child to take a positive step on their own when taking action is necessary. It’s a time when your child can role play with an adult or practice how they want to respond. In the case of cyberbullying, it’s important to shut off the social media accounts, shut off the computer and put down the cell phone. But the individuals who are passing along the information in the digital world will likely be at school the next day. It’s important to prepare your children to handle situations before they come up and allow them to role play so they feel more comfortable with what they’re going to say.
Get details about where your child expects to see this individual the next day and talk through different responses, acting them out in a safe place at home. It’s important your children understand telling an adult is not tattling but is in fact protecting themselves and the bully from situations that can easily escalate online. Deflection and humor is a simple way to reduce the emotionally charged situation into something more manageable for your child and for the bully. Using a sense of humor appropriately can work as a strong tactic.
When my youngest daughter was faced with a number of students at school who thought she had said things that she didn’t, she ended up just avoiding them until everything blew over and the young woman who made the fuss in the first place let it die out. Thankfully my daughter had a number of friends who socialized with her at school. But she learned some valuable lessons that she’ll take with her in the years to come.