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2 Things We're Just Now Realizing About Bullying

Photograph by Twenty20

“I do what they say because if I do, they might like me. If I don’t, they won’t even talk to me.”

Sounds like middle school, right? Wrong. This is third grade. This is a kind, funny, smart and athletic third-grade girl, and this is her struggle during lunch and recess every single day.

When relational aggression is portrayed in TV and movies, we see outrageous acts of “mean girl” behavior that seem almost unbelievable. When relational aggression occurs in the real world, however, it looks a lot like this.

Shifting alliances, ultimatums, false apologies and emotional control are all too familiar to many young girls these days. As they grow and dip their toes into things like social media, cyberbullying can become an issue. While parents often tell me that they know “this is something kids just have to learn to deal with,” the long-term repercussions of “just dealing” with bullying (in any form) can be devastating.

This isn't just a phase, kids being kids, something that they need to learn to walk away from. A new study, conducted at the University of Illinois and published online by Social Psychology of Education, shows that children who experienced bullying when they were kids reported significantly greater levels of mental health problems as young adults. The study evaluated 480 college students. Researchers surveyed participants about their exposure to a variety of traumatic experiences as kids and assessed their psychological functioning.

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Results of the survey showed that bullying was the strongest predictor of PTSD symptoms among the participants. Females, in particular, struggled with the long-term effects of bullying, reporting higher levels of anxiety, depression and symptoms of PTSD than their male counterparts.

It can be difficult to walk away from a peer group, even if that peer group isn’t being kind.

Studies like this one are eye-opening, because they show us what happens down the line if young children don’t receive the help and support they need. The good news is that we can take steps to help kids navigate these difficult social issues early on, and that will help them work through similar issues as they get older. Here's where to focus:

1. Verbalize emotions.

A mistake I see parents make over and over again is to tell kids to let this stuff roll off their backs and leave it at that. It’s exceptionally difficult to simply “walk away” or "not take it so personally” when other kids are excluding, spreading rumors or shooting nasty looks all day long.

Encourage your child to verbalize her emotions about her peer relationships. Listen when she talks about the negative interactions she experiences, her feelings about those interactions and what she did to cope. It can be difficult for parents to step back and listen without trying to fix. But getting those feelings out is an essential step toward building adaptive coping strategies.

2. Help her find her tribe

A teenage girl recently told me that she switched peer groups four times in elementary school because she couldn’t find the right fit. She wanted to get away from unkind behavior, but she struggled to find the right group. According to this young woman, high school is much easier, because you simply hang out with the kids with similar interests.

They need help and support from the beginning, not after they’ve been in survival mode for months or even years.

It can be difficult to walk away from a peer group, even if that peer group isn’t being kind. Young girls feel an intense pressure to fit in and be part of the group. You can help your daughter find her best match by using friendship maps. Have her draw all of her friends from the different parts of her life (school, sports, summer camps, etc.) Talk about how she formed those friendships and how she can use those experiences to start new friendships.

3. Talk about how to get help

Many young girls tell me that they don’t seek help at school because they are afraid the bullying will get worse, they don’t think their teachers like “tattling” or they don’t know when they should get help. In short, they’ve been taught to tough it out so they sit back in silence and attempt to survive the day.

It’s essential to talk to young girls about where to get help and how soon to reach for a lifeline. When they internalize negative interactions over and over again, they develop negative core beliefs. They begin to believe that they are worthless, unlikeable and the source of the problem. Over time, they experience symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. They need help and support from the beginning, not after they’ve been in survival mode for months or even years.

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Help your daughter create an action plan so that she knows what to do and where to go when she needs emotional support at school. All kids need a touchstone at school. But for kids who are bullied, knowing how to get support can be the difference between learning to cope and overcome huge obstacles, or heading down a path of maladaptive coping strategies that might very well lead to self-destructive behaviors.

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