The National Institutes of Health recognizes bullying as a significant public health problem. In the social media era, harassment and intimidation take place both offline and on, which amplifies the severity of aggression and stress in children and their parents.
In this episode, Dr. Tony Pesavento, a child psychiatrist here at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, helps parents understand bullying behaviors, how to address signs of bullying, and ways to prevent it.
01:25 – Bullying and Cyberbullying
02:26 – Signs of Bullying
05:29 – Talking to Your Kids about Bullying
07:29 – Bullying: How to Handle It
08:14 – Role of Social Media in Bullying
10:31 – Mental Health Intervention: Consulting a Psychiatrist
13:29 – Communicating With Your Child’s School About Bullying
Gina Melton: I remember when I was in middle school and I was bullied and I think, just thinking about that right now makes me so anxious. It was devastating for me and actually it made me not want to go to school. I think I remember having stomach issues and anxiety and it was definitely hard to navigate, especially as a middle-schooler — and that’s when social media wasn’t even around.
Today as a parent, I worry about my kids being bullied because of my experience as a child.
If you’re wondering the same thing — how can I prevent my child from being bullied, being a bully and just starting the conversation in general — well, guess what? You are in the right place today because the doctors at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center are the experts.
And today we’re gonna bring you an honest conversation about how to talk to your kids about bullying and cyberbullying.
Hi, I am Gina Melton with the Just Kids Health Podcast from Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. Join me as I talk with the region’s pediatric experts about everything related to children’s health — from medical issues to mental health — all to keep your child healthy, safe, and strong. So, just sit back and listen or you can even multi-task like I do.
Today, I’d like to welcome Dr. Tony Pesavento to talk about bullying and cyberbullying. It’s great to see you. Thank you so much for being here today.
Bullying and cyberbullying
Dr. Tony Pesavento: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for joining us, Gina.
Gina Melton: Yeah. I’ve heard such great things about you.
Dr. Pesavento: Oh my Gosh.
Gina: And about the work you do at Children’s.
Dr. Pesavento: We at Children’s — we have a great group. We’ve got four psychiatrists and we’ve got a group of APRNs (Advanced Practice Registered Nurses) and nurses and psychologists and they all do a great job of taking care of kids — and so I am honored to represent them.
Gina: I hear that you’re just a great advocate for kids.
Dr. Pesavento: Try to be. Try to be — that’s the goal. And I think that’s the goal of any pediatric physician is to — not only try and take care of the medical problems that are in front of you, but also see the child as a holistic individual and to give kids a voice when they might not have one — is really something that we try and take pride in.
Signs of bullying
Gina: Well today we’re gonna navigate this conversation about bullying and cyberbullying. And I feel like that’s kind of — just a large thing that parents are concerned about these days, you know, as they would be — just like me as a parent. What are the signs of bullying and, you know, maybe even, “Is my child a bully?”
Dr. Pesavento: Yeah. When we start talking about what we see in kids who are being bullied — there are some of the signs that might be a little more intuitive. i.e. is your child coming home with injuries that they might not have great explanations for? Are they coming home with ripped clothes? Are they coming home with items missing? Do they come home with puffy eyes and it looks like they’ve been crying? Do they come home with lunches that haven’t been eaten? Or do they come home and automatically want something to eat maybe indicating that they had something at lunch that they weren’t able to eat. So, a couple more open signs.
Then, there’s a couple more subtle signs like — is your child more withdrawn? Do they seem to be struggling more with depression? Are they struggling more with anxiety — like you mentioned in your introduction. More mental health signs that something is going wrong at school and that it might be something that needs to be addressed. How do you know that your child is a bully? Can be a little bit more difficult. You wanna look for signs of — are they more aggressive? Are they showing signs of using physical means as a way to get — is their primary mean of getting what they want? Are they coming home with belongings that you can’t really explain? Or did their friend give them something kind of a picture.
One of the other subtle signs when we start talking about — less about the physical bully more traditional type of bullying to the more cyberbullying — is your child more solely focused on social media? Is that all they are doing? Is that where they might be getting a sense of their self worth? Are they focused on popularity? Are they focused on how they look and how they come across to others — can be a little bit more of an overt sign that a different type of bullying might be in play.
Gina: I just think about that. When you were talking about, kind of, the physical signs of being bullied before — you were talking about maybe your child is a bully. When I think back on that as a kid when I was in middle school, I just think about how I was just so miserable and I felt like sick to my stomach and the anxiety and as an already anxious child, you know, I try to recognize those signs in my kids to see if anything like that is going on.
Dr. Pesavento: Totally. Kids having — what we call somatic symptoms, which are like you’re describing Gina. Stomach aches, headaches, things that are a little bit more hard to quantify like a fever or having other symptoms that you can’t fake — like a really bad runny nose that would prevent them from going to school — can be a sign that they just don’t wanna be in school. That can be a real opportunity for you to investigate reasons why they don’t wanna be in school and bullying is a real common culprit there.
Talking to your kids about bullying
Gina: And that brings me to this doctor. I mean, how do you talk to your kids about bullying? I thought about it the other day and I’ve had this conversation with my kids and I said, you know, please don’t ever bully any kids. That’s not nice. Here’s what happened to me.” Like I just shared my story with them. But what would you suggest?
Dr. Pesavento: It’s really challenging. I think the first thing that I try to do when I talk to kids about their experience with bullying is almost try to normalize it. Not in a sense that it’s okay. But more in a sense of — this is something that most kids will experience, because the stats bear out that most kids will experience bullying. And because it’s one thing to be bullied, it’s another thing to be bullied and feel like you’re the only one who’s being bullied. So, removing that isolation piece, that being singled out piece, can be a nice way to at least get the conversation started.
The second thing that you wanna do — that I try to do when I’m talking to kids about bullying — is to really try to encourage them that it’s okay to talk about it. The number one reason I hear the kids don’t wanna talk about it is either they are embarrassed — which makes sense — or they’re afraid that you’re gonna do something. It’s actually — what we see as the remedy for bullying as parents often times is not the way the kids want it to be handled.
So, for example, if I were to go straight to their teacher and say, “Hey, my kid’s being bullied”. Then all of a sudden what are they labeled as? They are labeled as the tattle tale. They’re labeled as somebody who can’t handle teasing. They’re labeled as somebody who is weak or vulnerable. So, it almost becomes more easier to be a target than a less target which would be your intention as a parent.
Gina: And I didn’t even think about that. Like the mama bear in me thinks — you know I wanna go straight to the teacher and say, “Don’t let this kid hurt my kid.” Actually that could maybe even make it worse, right?
Bullying: How to handle it
Dr. Pesavento: Yeah. Now, if you’re kid is being hurt — and we’re kind of jumping ahead a little bit into what we should do with bullying — but if you’re kid’s being hurt, you don’t really have a choice. You can’t let your child be injured. That’s not okay in any sense.
But it is a barrier to your kids talking about it, is the idea of what you’re gonna do about it. And so it’s really important to have a good conversation about – we’re gonna come up with a strategy together. We’re gonna work on something that if bullying is happening — that this is something that we’re gonna do as a team. It’s not gonna be mama bear — no pun intended — that mama bear is gonna take over and we go from there. It’s more about — we’re gonna work on this together so that we can find a solution that works for both of us.
Role of social media in bullying
Gina: And now we bring social media into it, right? And that’s just a whole next level of what can happen there.
Dr. Pesavento: It is, and that is one the hardest things. When parents ask me why is cyberbullying so much more impactful than — I call it traditional bullying, it’s not the greatest word but — traditional bullying. When — and we’re gonna date each other, right? But you went to school a little bit before I did and I went to school a little bit before my patients. When we went to school, bullying ended at 3:00. As soon as that bell rung, as soon as you got in mom and dad’s car, you were in kind of a safe zone.
Well, now kids carry around their bully 24 hours a day on their cell phone or their playstations or their tablets and it can be nonstop. It doesn’t end at 3:00. Christmas break is not a break. It can be all the time. That’s really where I see struggle the most is they can’t turn it off.
Gina: And that’s kind of scary to think about that. So, it’s really important I think — what I’m getting from you is that it’s just important to have, like, an honest conversation with our kids about it. If you’ve ever been bullied maybe bring that into it and, you know, let them know that they’re not the only one that this is happening to — in fact, it’s probably happening to a lot of kids.
Dr. Pesavento: Yeah and there’s a really, really high chance that every kid on social media has not only been, at some time, the victim of cyberbullying — has also seen cyberbullying take place, whether or not they’re the victim or not. And while that’s a really comforting thing, it’s also a really scary thing.
Mental health intervention: Consulting a psychiatrist
Gina: Now let’s take it to this level. It’s gotten to a higher level and we need to come see somebody at Children’s like you, you know. That’s a good option I think.
Dr. Pesavento: It is a good option. Now, that doesn’t mean that every kid who’s struggling with being cyberbullied — as serious as that is — needs to see a psychiatrist. That would be a bit much. When we see the need for a psychiatrist come into play is when we see things like kids not being able to function in the way that they normally do.
For example, if we have a kid who’s struggling with getting to school because they’re having physical symptoms of headaches, stomachaches — that is the result of depression and anxiety, secondary to the bullying at school then, yeah. We can get involved and we can try our best to help with that. If you’re seeing kids who are also struggling with the social media aspect of things and being obsessed and fixated on it — that’s also something that we have the ability to work with kids and try and help them manage that level of anxiety and be able to improve there.
Gina: And as far as that goes, I’m assuming you would advocate for, you know, not as much screen time.
Dr. Pesavento: Yeah.
Gina: You know. Me too.
Dr. Pesavento: Yeah and it’s hard and it’s getting harder, and you will not meet a less social media advocate than me because of the reasons that we’re talking about — the bullying and the potential for danger for kids. However, I will say in the past year, social media has been an outlet for kids that I’ve appreciated in a different way because it’s let them stay in contact with their friends. What they might not have ever had because they can’t physically be around them.
That has really created a barrier because I’ve found myself advocating less and less for kids to stay off social media. In fact, I’ve almost encouraged them to stay in touch with their friends however they can because they need that social outlet. So, that’s been a little of a paradigm but yeah, it’s still about limits. It’s still about monitoring. It’s still about understanding what apps kids are using. It’s about understanding what they’re putting out. It’s about understanding what they’re getting back.
As parents, especially of teenagers, it’s really hard to helicopter them like that because they’re gonna push back like no other. I know, I would have, but it is extremely important. It’s not only a way to prevent them from being bullied, but it’s also a way to prevent them or to keep them safe.
Gina: Yeah. You talk about helicopter parenting. Whenever I try to helicopter parent my teenage son, he’s like, “Oh no! I’m not having any of that!” Not having any of that.
Dr. Pesavento: Yeah, that’s a good sign. That’s normal. That’s a normal thing. Yeah, that’s good.
Gina: I guess that is normal. Darn it for me!
Dr. Pesavento: No. That’s good.
Communicating with your child’s school about bullying
Gina: And finally, I guess, you know, going back to the more traditional bullying. How do you communicate with your child’s school? What’s the best way to do that?
strong>Dr. Pesavento: Yeah. The first thing that I would recommend, if I had a parent come to me and be like, “My kid’s being bullied, what do I do?” You want to quantify what kind of bullying is happening. You wanna have an honest conversation with your child about what they would want done — but really the best evidence for how to tackle bullying in school is not necessarily on an individual level. Sometimes, that’s needed to keep kids safe but oftentimes we see that there are repercussions in terms of increased bullying because you go out and tell Mrs. Jones that Tim’s being bullied. Then that leads to Tim being more isolated and more called out than he would be originally.
But really the best evidence is for more system wide bullying prevention programs where it involves teacher education, student education, more frequent check-ins with students about bullying. More programs and ways to identify and stop the early signs of bullying before it gets to the point to where there’s more extreme bullying that includes physical harm. So, more system wide programming has been shown to be more beneficial than on an individual basis.
Again, you gotta do what you got to do. You gotta do what you got to do to keep your kids safe. I’m not arguing against that but I think having a more honest conversation with them is gonna be a better way to approach it.
Gina: Absolutely. Absolutely, thank you so much. It was so nice to have you.
Dr. Pesavento: Oh yeah. This was my pleasure.
Gina: It’s been a really eye-opening conversation. Now, I know: don’t go mama bear!
Dr. Pesavento: No — in some regards.
Gina: Unless I need to — right. Unless I need to.
Well, thank you so much for listening to the Just Kids Health Podcast and please remember to rate, review and subscribe. And for more information on how we can help your child — visit https://www.childrensnebraska.org and follow us on social media.