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Bullying 2020: How to help kids deal with bullying over masks, politics and more

"Bullying is bullying," but experts say parents, teachers and schools can help stop it even if the topics changed in 2020.
/ Source: TODAY

A lot has changed about education since the COVID-19 crisis hit us, but one thing remained constant: Children and teens still engage in bullying and cyberbullying.

“We’re still waiting for some data to be published on cyberbullying among youth during the pandemic,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University told TODAY Parents, via email. “We have had educators across the nation message us for help as they were dealing with cyberbullying while their students were engaged in distance learning.”

New kinds of bullying

Much like adults, children bully others about wearing masks, politics and Black Lives Matter. Now we can add to the list going to school in person versus engaging in virtual learning. While some of the topics of bullying might be new, addressing it remains the same.

“Bullying is bullying. It doesn’t matter where it is coming from, whether you are being cyberbullied, whether it is bullying because you’re being home schooled, not home schooled, whether it is bullying because of race, political views,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, told TODAY Parents. “Across the board, it should be addressed and treated the same way.”

What is bullying?

Parenting and resiliency expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa says it is important for people to use the term correctly. When a child says something unkind that hurts a person’s feelings that’s not necessarily bullying.

“Bullying has come to describe in our culture any time someone's mean to someone else or someone gets their feelings hurt but that's not accurate,” she told TODAY Parents. “It has to be repetitive. It has to be intentional — if I hurt your feelings by accident no matter how mean I was it's not bullying unless I meant to do it. And, then the third thing is that is there has to be some sort of imbalance of power.”

Coronavirus bullying

While the content doesn’t always matter, some children are facing extra scrutiny because of their race as many people mistakenly believe myths about Asian and Asian American people and coronavirus.

“Some Asians absolutely have been targeted with ignorant and hateful comments in the wake of COVID-19. Schools, organizations and any adults with a platform must call this behavior out as unacceptable and prescribe informal and formal sanctions,” Hinduja said. “Being discriminated (or bullied) because of one’s religion, race, gender, sexual identity or orientation can formally be considered a hate crime in many jurisdictions.”

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Gilboa said many organizations provide support to parents dealing with racist behavior, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates or the NAACP.

“There are some great resources out there,” Gilboa said.

How to help kids deal with bullying

The experts recommend some steps parents can take to help their children grapple with the latest bullying topics. Talk to your child and the school, but not the other child or their parents, and lead with empathy and modelling good behavior.

1. Talk to your children

Parents need to understand how their children are feeling about the situation before they can help. Though, the experts agree there is one thing parents should never suggest their children try.

“I highly recommend that parents do not recommend any type of violence,” Nunez said. “Talk with the child to see what their feelings are. But this is the time where parents can start instilling the concept of self-esteem and self-confidence.”

Gilboa recommends directly asking children what they need from their parents.

“Parents can say, ‘Are you looking for empathy, advice or intervention?’” she explained. “If you’re not worried for their safety and they say, ‘Just empathy, please don’t get involved.’ It is really OK not to get involved.”

She said that parents can give conditions, such as saying they won’t intervention unless the bullying becomes physical or the child is in danger.

“You can have your own metrics and let your child know about it,” Gilboa said.

2. Don’t call the parents or the child

“Calling the other kids parents is rarely the right thing to do,” Gilboa said.

When parents hear their child is a bully, they might respond by shutting down or being defensive. This doesn't stop the behavior and could actually worsen it.

“It is much better to get a neutral third party, usually the school, involved,” Gilboa said.

She says they often know how to phrase the discussion in a way that doesn't involve the word "bully," which might make them more receptive to working with their child to change.

And, it’s important not to try to parent another child.

“As adults we can’t be going to other people’s children about their behavior,” she said. “That never makes things better for your child and it is not acceptable adult behavior.”

3. Talk to the school

Nunez often recommends that parents encourage their children to talk to some at school instead of confronting the bully.

“Walk away, do not engage, because that’s a form of self-confidence, and also going to a trusted within the school environment and letting them know what is going on,” she said. “A lot of times children aren’t advocating for themselves so they’re bullied and don’t tell anybody.”

Gilboa says if a child asks their parents to intervene, or the bullying gets to a point where parents are worried about their safety, the parents should talk to an adult who is not directly invested.

“Involving a neutral, third party — the scout master, the Girl Scout advisor, the youth group advisor, the coach, teacher — gives you a better chance of success than just going to that other parent yourself,” she said.

4. Encourage empathy, understanding and kindness

Nunez believes that both parents and schools should strive to develop empathy and kindness in children.

“Schools should have lessons on what it means to be a compassionate, empathetic being. People are going to have differences but how do we get along without shaming or demeaning someone who is ‘different?’” she said.

Hinduja says fostering a healthy environment is one thing that helps combat cyberbullying.

“Constantly demonstrating emotional support, a warm and caring atmosphere, a strong focus on academics and learning and encouraging healthy self-esteem among students (fosters a positive climate at school),” he said.

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