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Coronavirus bullying is a thing. Here's how parents can deal

Even with schools closing, bullying behavior can still happen — and can still be overcome.
Little girl being bullied at school
"Can I ask you to please consider how you are discussing COVID-19 at home?" implored one mom whose Chinese American kids have experienced bullying during the coronavirus crisis.Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

The coronavirus pandemic is unearthing a host of negative social consequences, including one that can be especially painful for children: bullying.

Parents of Asian American children have reported instances of their kids being mistreated and shunned — and not just by other kids. Adults have wittingly or unwittingly participated in similar behavior.

Rebecca Radicchi, a freelance writer who lives outside Atlanta, wrote a TODAY Parenting Team post describing how her kids’ lives changed after the coronavirus began spreading fear as well as illness.

“Just this week, our three Chinese American children experienced ... children touching our daughter and then pretending she was most contagious during a group game of coronavirus, another child discarding items that were ‘Made in China’ on our child’s desk, (and) adults asking if our kids know about the virus because they are Chinese American,” Radicchi wrote.

“Can I ask you to please consider how you are discussing COVID-19 at home?”

Even with schools closing across the United States, kids can be blindsided by comments in unexpected places and situations. In the Seattle area — ground zero for coronavirus cases in the U.S. — a woman serving food samples at a warehouse store told an 8-year-old boy to “get away because he may be 'from China' and (she) was worrying about getting infected," the boy’s father, Devin Cabanilla, tweeted in late January.

“The painful part was hearing my 8-year-old question for the first time looking different,” Cabanilla wrote on Twitter.

In an even more extreme case, a 16-year-old California boy ended up in the hospital after being physically attacked by bullies in his high school who accused him of having the coronavirus. That attack prompted the national group OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates to call on school officials “to educate students surrounding coronavirus and reinforce or implement preventative measures against race-based bullying.”

Against this backdrop, how can parents protect their kids from bullying? TODAY parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba shared the following tips and insights with TODAY Parents:

Realize that bullying doesn’t have an age limit

"Bullying is modeled," Borba explained. "When adults give it permission, then kids will pick it up. ... Our voice and behavior become the kids' voice and behavior, so bullying can become easily contagious.”

Empathy is critical

"When empathy lies dormant, bullying goes up," Borba explained, adding that coronavirus is "another reason for bullying to be out there."

But, on a positive note, Borba said bullying is a learned behavior that can be unlearned. She said some of the most powerful parenting moments happen when adults audibly catch themselves and use their own behavior as an example of what not to do.

“Stop and listen to yourself and ask yourself, 'Is that the kind of behavior I want my child to catch?'” Borba said. “If not, then put up a red flag in your own mind and stop it. ... That's a really powerful parenting moment to be able to say, 'I did this, that was wrong and I need to rethink it.'"

Talk about bullying with your kids

Borba noted that using an example, like this article, can be another opportunity to broach a touchy subject like bullying with children — whether they are the target or the source of any kind of bullying behavior, coronavirus-induced or not.

"Maybe a parent could use a newspaper article ... and say, 'I just read about this trend,’” Borba said. “‘Are you hearing this much? Are you seeing this? Please tell me because I'm always here to listen.’”

Help make things right again

If your child — or perhaps an adult you know — participated in bullying behavior while being swept up by coronavirus fears, an apology to the offended child can go a long way toward helping everyone feel better and move forward. No matter what, it’s always possible to do something to move things in a better direction. Brainstorm ideas that feel right, thoughtful and kind.

For more stories like this, see TODAY's special section on bullying here.

Resources for kids and parents: