Standing up on the schoolyard — Expert advice on handling bullies

With the start of the new school year, it’s important for parents to keep a watchful eye on their children for behavioral problems. One of the most common back-to-school burdens is bullying.

Bullying occurs most frequently in late elementary school and middle school and can take several forms. Boy bullies tend to intimidate with physical aggression. Girls engage more in verbal teasing.

Schools are paying more attention to bullying than in years past. But there is no substitute for parental involvement. If you have concerns, talk with your child, but keep it open-ended, said Susan Sylvia, Ph.D., is an instructor in clinical pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“For instance: rather than asking them, ‘Are you worried about X, Y or Z?,’ ask them to tell you how you feel about going back to school and what are their concerns and worries?,” Sylvia says. “So the child can spontaneously present what’s on his or her mind — rather than copping out by asking ‘yes-no’ questions. Kids are more likely to open up and talk when they’ve been given a little less structure in the conversation.”

For a child who is being bullied, the first step may be assertiveness training. Children who get bullied tend to be more passive. Simply telling the child to ignore the bully or to walk away may fall short.

“I think our first impulse is to instruct our kids — when they are being teased or bullied — to stand tall, walk away and ignore it,” Sylvia says. “And while that’s not necessarily bad advice, it leaves a child feeling helpless and it doesn’t necessarily increase their self-esteem. Sometimes it can decrease self-esteem by making them feel like they are powerless.”

Children who are victims may need help standing up to a bully, or training in dealing with difficult people. It can be an assertive response like, telling the other child to “knock it off,”‘ or it can be a little more savvy, Sylvia says.

“For example, one child may get satisfaction when he’s teased about his clothing by doing this: The bully says ‘That’s the ugliest shirt I’ve ever seen,’ and he says, ‘You know, you might be right.’ It feels pretty good that he had a comeback, but also good that he didn’t handle it in an aggressive, bullying fashion,” Sylvia says.

If serious problems continue, get help from an authority. And finally, parents may want to speak to a teacher or school official because no instances of abuse or intimidation should be tolerated.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.