Bullying and other forms of peer mistreatment: Overview

What do we need to know about peer mistreatment?  Scroll down to read about these facts.

Fact #1 – Not all peer aggression or mistreatment is truly damaging or traumatic, but some of it is.

Fact #2 – Bullying and mistreatment can take many forms.

Fact #3 – Even if you think your child’s distress will be temporary, don’t dismiss it out of hand. 

#1 – Not all peer aggression or mistreatment is truly damaging or traumatic, but some of it is.

Think of aggression as a continuum.  There are milder problems – like a random unkind statement; then there are more serious problems – like a big fight with best friend, or bullying.

When children are being unkind or cruel to each other, there are several things to consider when you’re deciding how serious it is.

  •  Is anyone in imminent danger of serious harm?

For example – your child tells you that another child has told them they will “beat them up” or “kill them.”  Or: your child tells you that they have considered suicide, or have considered or have already hurt themselves.

DON’T CONFUSE THIS WITH:  Other types of emotional distress (see below), or more vague threats (for example, “I’ll make you sorry”).   (See below for coping with these.)

WHAT TO DO?  This is a time to reach out and get help.  Don’t wait and hope that your child will recover by themselves. You can begin by talking immediately to your pediatrician or family doctor, or taking your child to an emergency room if they threaten self-harm.  If the threat is from another person, you can call the school and the local police and they will help you with a threat of violence.

  • Is your child in emotional distress, needing your support and help?

Certain kinds of peer cruelty are more likely to result in trauma. When children are upset by problems with their peers, their feelings can be fleeting or can be persistent, lasting over days, months, or even years.  Problems where the cruel child is a good friend or is a bully tend to be more traumatic than more transient interactions.

DON’T CONFUSE THIS WITH:  Situations that sound upsetting to you but that your child seems to handling adequately on their own, or situations that involve imminent physical harm to anyone (see above).

WHAT TO DO?  FIRST: Talk with your child and get details about what’s happening.  Who is the problem with?  What are the circumstances where the cruelty happens?  Who else is there?  What happens before, and afterwards?  How does your child react or respond?  These details can be very important.  For example, imagine a child who continually approaches their tormentor in an attempt to make friends.  Victims are never responsible for their own victimization, but their coping skills may not be sophisticated enough to effectively deal with the situation. SECOND: Consider how to help your child cope.  Sometimes this means taking action (e.g., reporting to the school) and sometimes it means helping your child “shrug off” events (when possible) by increasing their social support.  Kids don’t always know that sticking by your friends can help a hard social situation, but research does suggest that it’s the most effective method for coping.  Read more

#2 – Bullying and mistreatment can take many forms.

Bullying is a problem where a more powerful person repeatedly and deliberately harms a less powerful person.  These problems can happen online through social media or other communications; they can happen in front, in the  form of physical violence or psychological attacks.  Most bullying today is psychological and verbal, not physical, but physical bullying or fighting does still happen.

DON’T CONFUSE THIS WITH:  Fighting is when children both engage against each other, and they have relatively equal power (social status or physical prowess).  This can still be a significant social problem that your child will need your help to resolve, so it’s important to ask questions to determine if it’s fighting that’s taking place.  If your child is engaged in fighting, help them resolve their angry feelings and think of ways to end the conflict while keeping the friendship.  It’s also important not to confuse this with very serious problems such as imminent threats (see above).

WHAT TO DO?  Discuss the details of the situation with your child. Don’t worry too much if your child describes what sounds like a fight; fighting is very common among children and it can help them learn how to handle conflict while retaining their social relationships.  If fighting seems frequent or habitual, discuss what you’re noticing with your pediatrician or family doctor.

#3 – Even if you think your child’s distress will be temporary, don’t dismiss it out of hand.  

Children and adolescents can certainly be melodramatic.  A teacher once asked me, “What if they’re just being upset to get attention?”  When a child overacts to get attention, that may mean that they actually need more attention!  What you know from your life experience to be a temporary situation, your child may fear as a permanent state of affairs.

DON’T CONFUSE THIS WITH:  It can be hard to distinguish between temporary and more long-term distress; sometimes the only way to tell is to wait and see how the situation develops over time.

WHAT TO DO?  Short or long term, distress and difficult social situations are something everyone needs to learn to cope with.  Sometimes that means garnering support and help from others; sometimes that means apologizing; sometimes that means accepting someone else’s apology or explanation.  In any case, acknowledge your child’s feelings and ask if they’d like to discuss steps going forward.  Remember that coping skills focus on gaining needed support from others, from either other adults or friends.

This site presents current research about reducing bullying AND reducing the harm that bullying can do.