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Ask A Therapist: What Do I Do If My Child Is Getting Bullied Online?

Embark Behavioral Health
October 15, 2021

As parents and guardians, bullying looks dramatically different for today’s kids compared to what we may have experienced. For starters, bullying isn’t just present in the school or at the local hangouts anymore — it can now follow our kids wherever they go. Furthermore, cyberbullying allows this threat to extend outside of the child’s peer group to complete strangers.  
 
Scott Boice, clinical director at New Haven Residential Treatment Center, explains why this shift matters: 

“There can be huge differences in the levels of severity. There can be small issues of bullying, and then there can be massive, consuming, and incredibly destructive kinds of bullying.” 

How is cyberbullying real and damaging to teens? A 2019 report found that roughly 37% of young people between 12 and 17 have been bullied online. One in 10 of those adolescents had experienced cyberbullying more than once. Furthermore, studies show that teens who experience online harassment are at a greater risk for self-harm and suicidal tendencies.  
 
It’s hard to know the full scope of the problem, too. Only one in 10 teen victims will tell a parent, guardian, or trusted adult that they’re being cyberbullied. 

What Can I Do If My Child Is Being Bullied? 

Recognizing that your child is being bullied starts with being in-tune with your child, which begins long before a bullying incident occurs. In regards to parents being aware of what’s going on in their children’s lives, Boice adds: 

“As kids hit adolescence, they pull away a little bit, and that’s when we sometimes back off, but that’s really when we need to start to lean forward a little bit more.” 

When you have conversations with your child, you open up lines of communication for a better understanding of what they’re experiencing. As explained above, there are disparities in the experience of being bullied today versus when you were that age, so Boice recommends being aware of that difference. It may look and feel a lot different from just name-calling and aggressive behavior, requiring other tactics to deal with the bully.  

Because of the varying degrees of severity that bullying comes with these days, such as cyberbullying, online harassment, as well as in-person at school, the old advice of standing up to the bully may not always cut it. We want to raise kids who are resilient and have grit and determination. But, in certain situations, we may need to strike a balance between giving them the confidence, tools, and support to work through it on their own and stepping in and helping when necessary. 
 
These are the steps you and your teen can take to deal with bullying: 

  1. Report it — either to school administrators, school officials, your child’s teacher, a guidance counselor, or to the online platform. If it’s happening online, encourage your teen to block those involved. You or your teen can also report the cyberbullying to their school administration or a school counselor. 
  2. Gather evidence of bullying behavior. If they’re being cyberbullied, screenshots of abusive, explicit, or threatening content should be collected as evidence for any authorities or school administrators.  
  3. Get the police involved if you witness a hate crime, stalking, explicit photos, or physical threats. 

“Negotiating, managing, and working through a bullying situation can be really empowering and build grit, resilience, and coping skills,” notes Boice. They’ll need your support — and, potentially, help — in order to do so. 

The Effects of Bullying Can Lead to Trauma 

We live in a world where anxiety and depression in teens are higher than ever before. “With seemingly impersonal online interaction at times and a pressure to succeed, bullying is almost a symptom of the kind of world we live in,” explains Boice.  
 
It may be hard to tell if your child is being bullied at school or cyberbullied online, but if they are, it can affect their mental health and well-being or even progress to an experience of trauma.  

We recommend looking for these warning signs of bullying and indicators of trauma from bullying: 

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety
  • Social isolation 
  • Low self-esteem  
  • Social phobias and social fears 
  • Insomnia or not being able to sleep at night 
  • Hypervigilance 
  • Pulling away from friends and activities 
  • Defensiveness 
  • Sudden sensitivity to criticism or attention 
  • Changes in weight or appetite  

With cyberbullying in particular, there are specific behaviors to look for, too. They may react abnormally to notifications, such as being jumpy when they hear an alert’s ding. They may be consumed with monitoring online bullying to the point that they try to check their phone or laptop at all times of the day. In addition to not sleeping much, constant monitoring may also cause them to seem distracted and on edge. 

How is Cyberbullying Real and Threatening to Teens?  

One of the reasons cyberbullying can evolve into longer-lasting trauma is because it can quickly spiral out of control. We likely didn’t have to deal with embarrassing moments being caught on video and shared with the world when we were kids. Today, teens may not only be targeted by their peers, but complete strangers may also bully them if a video, post, or photo goes viral.  

As adolescents, we all sometimes struggled with making the right choice. We’re all prone to mess up time and again at a young age — it’s a natural part of the learning process and healthy development.  
 
Now, the difference is that mistakes — big or small — and the online ridicule or shaming can follow a teen long after it happens if the incident or content is published online. There’s a new threat of paying for mistakes and being shamed and embarrassed by more than just those who witnessed it, but by people all over the world. Boice adds: 

“There are types of bullying that are incredibly traumatic and long-lasting. It can become a trauma that is severe enough that your child will need to go beyond just talking to you, close friends, or other trusted connections. They may require professional treatment to heal.” 

While there are no sure-fire steps to completely prevent cyberbullying and traditional bullying, there are ways you can protect your child against it. 
 

How to Protect Your Child Against Cyberbullying  

The steps you can take to protect your teen from online harassment follow two tracks:  

  1. Building resilience and self-esteem. 
  2. Setting up technology with boundaries and controls. 

In raising your child, you’ll want to focus on building grit and resilience as well as empathy and compassion to help them develop a strong sense of self-worth and an understanding that the opinions of people they don’t know don’t really matter. If they understand that others don’t define who they are, others’ beliefs won’t hold as much weight.  

So how do you instill these core values and traits? Boice advises: 

“Offering children the opportunity to give meaningful service, reach out, and to be exposed to new things and people will give them an idea of what’s really important, what’s really valuable, and what’s not.” 

“Ensure they feel like their family is a real anchor for them and support the development of close friendships and good, solid, healthy connections. Having a supportive community is going to be a protection against the effects of in-person and online harassment,” he adds. 
 
In raising kids to be strong, self-confident, and compassionate, we may not only raise children who can handle a situation where they’re being bullied but also teens who stand up and say something when they see their peers being bullied or cyberbullied.  

On the technology side, there are steps you can take to mitigate the chances of cyberbullying occurring. In theory, the easiest solution is to wait until your child is mature enough to handle the effects of social media and online activity before giving them a smartphone.  

Parents and guardians need to be really thoughtful about when their children have access to devices. It’s understandable that many families decide to allow their child to have a smartphone because they’re concerned for their safety and want to ensure their child can get a hold of them. There are other options for cell phones and devices that don’t put the internet — and literally, anything you could want (or not want) to find — in their pocket. 

Sure, they’ll point to friends who have one — and there’s always the likelihood that they’ll borrow friends’ phones. While they may feel like a bit of an outcast, if you identify clear boundaries as early as possible, it will help prevent damage. If you’re raising a younger child, let them know what age you’ll consider giving them a smartphone. Boice says, “I get it — it’s a hard boundary to draw, but it’s worthwhile.” 

When they do have a device, be sure to set up parental controls and privacy settings. You may even want to install monitoring software to track screen time, app usage, and other activities to ensure that they are safe and use technology in a healthy, productive way

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.