Cyberbullying: What can parents do if your child is victimized?

With schools closed due to COVID-19, children and teens are spending more time at home and likely having more access to digital devices — opening them to more possibility of experiencing cyberbullying.

When asked who should do more to address bullying, 83% of Chicago parents who considered it a big problem for youth responded “parents,” according to survey results released by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Public Health. Overall, nearly three out of four Chicago parents considered bullying and cyberbullying to be a big problem for youth.

Parents are right to worry about bullying, both in person and online. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports of bullying are highest for middle schools (28%) followed by high schools (16%) and primary schools (9%).

“Bullying has been part of our culture for a long time, but now with cyberbullying more kids are part of it,” says Dr. Colleen Cicchetti, who has been a child psychologist at Lurie Children's for more than 30 years and is the executive director of the Center for Childhood Resilience. “With online bullying, kids now can be victimized at home and they might feel like there is no escape. This might give rise to feelings of hopelessness and even thoughts of suicide.”

But what can parents do? One of the major ways parents can address bullying, advises Cicchetti, is knowing the warning signs and talking to their children about their concerns.

A child who is a victim of bullying might suddenly lose friends, not want to go to school or exhibit a change in eating habits. Victimized kids also might have trouble with sleep, isolate themselves and distance from what they would normally do.

Parents also can help their kids express negative feelings, like anger or sadness, and teach them ways to cope with emotions that might feel overwhelming.

It is important to not stigmatize or deny difficult feelings, Cicchetti advises. “Parents can start teaching emotional expression skills to preschoolers, showing them how to name different feelings, explaining that it is not bad to be angry or sad,” she says. “Developing a feeling vocabulary from an early age will help children share with parents when they are in distress from bullying.”

To address cyberbullying, parents should learn to navigate social media their children use and monitor their children's phone or other devices.

“The phone is just as powerful as a car, and potentially as dangerous to your child,” Cicchetti says. “Parents need to monitor their child's phone use as an extension of normal parenting. It is best to have an open dialogue with your child about device monitoring. Set that expectation from the very beginning, so your child understands that you as a parent are involved to ensure their safety, and that you may place restrictions or take the phone away if necessary.”

If you find out your child is being bullied, let them know you will intervene to stop the abuse. Talk to their teachers or school officials. Talk to other parents. If necessary, seek out a mental health professional to help your child.

Lurie Children's Center for Childhood Resilience provides helpful resources on bullying for parents and professionals.

• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital.

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