Tracy Fortier’s daughter, Emily, always loved school. But when the six-year-old began making up reasons to avoid going to class, throwing tantrums in the morning and deliberately being slow so she would be late, Fortier knew something was going on. She soon learned that a little girl in Emily’s class had been making up lies to get her daughter in trouble and ostracizing her from friends, telling them not to play with her because she’s “weird, bossy and gross.” School administrators said it was just two little girls not getting along, but Fortier could see the toll it was taking on her daughter.
“At first, Emily would get bullied maybe once or twice a day, but it got worse each year, to the point where she was coming home every day in tears, not wanting to eat, and would go to her room crying. My bubbly little girl was depressed,” says the Mattawa, Ont., mother.
As it turns out, repeated bullying can actually be as damaging as other forms of abuse. “Victimization doesn’t strengthen most children; it breaks them down,” says Tony Volk, an associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. Research shows that chronic victimization impacts kids' self-esteem by causing them to internalize negative messages about their own worth, feel inadequate, blame themselves and think negatively. Child psychologist Joanne Cummings, director of Knowledge Mobilization at PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), adds that bullied kids are also less likely to make new friends or try new activities, which can further affect their social status and increase feelings of loneliness, worthlessness and powerlessness. All of these are risk factors for developing chronic, stress-related physical and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, adds Cummings. The message to parents, she says, is be proactive to counteract your child’s negative self-talk. Here are a few ways you can help.
Show empathy and positivity Kids may be ashamed to talk about being bullied, or be afraid of their parents’ reactions, thinking they’ll be punished. While it may be upsetting to learn your child is being bullied, Cummings says it is important to show compassion for a child’s pain but also have an optimistic attitude that this problem can be solved. Reiterate that bullying others is wrong, not fair and everyone has the right to feel safe and respected.
Empower them Volk recommends parents encourage their kids to stand up for themselves. Fortier did just that, supporting Emily to defend herself and encouraging her to tell the teacher. But, if it doesn’t help the situation—as happened in Emily’s case—then it’s time to try something else. At this point, advising your child to simply tell the bully to stop will actually make them feel worse, says Cummings. They are coming to you because the bullying has become intolerable and they can’t fix the situation.
Spend quality time together Whether you’re playing together or going for a walk with the family dog, just being together and asking about their thoughts, feelings or opinions will strengthen the parent-child bond, and that will help boost their self-esteem, says Cummings.
Help your kid connect with others Capitalize on your child’s interests, signing them up for a sports team, art class or improv club. You want to give them a safe place to experience positive relationships with other kids and a chance to develop their talents, says Cummings. “Genuine self-esteem comes from developing skills and competencies that are noticed and validated by people who are important to you,” she explains. Find a group with a positive adult leader who creates an inclusive, welcoming environment where your kid can hopefully spark new friendships.
Talk to the school or daycare Not only is it a good idea to report bullying to the school so they can watch for harmful behaviour, but your child’s teacher may be able to help with self-esteem building. “Ask the teacher to create opportunities for your child to get to know and work with caring classmates so they develop healthy peer relationships,” suggests Cummings. For a kid who is being bullied, having a close friend can cut in half the long-term risks of mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, says Volk. Intervention from a teacher or another adult can also decrease the long-term risk that the child or youth’s self esteem is affected.
Fortier didn’t get the support from the school she wanted for her daughter. “Emily went from being so outspoken and full of laughter to this shy, quiet girl,” she recalls. After grade 3, they decided to put Emily in a new school where, after some encouragement, she made new friends. “It was the best decision we could have made.”