Author Jeff Wax, LCSWR, is the Director of the Emotional Health and Wellness Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC) in New York.

Bullying a concern as kids go back to school

Psychotherapist Jeff Wax at CHC in NYC addresses bullying

Jeff Wax, psychotherapist

As the summer ends and the school year begins, one topic that has become prominent in our thoughts is bullying. It is a good thing that most of the time our children roll with the everyday ups and downs of school or community social life. But when children are experiencing true bullying, it becomes challenging to let go of the hurts and the shame that is inflicted. Parents, teachers, and other professionals need to know what bullying is, what the impact can be on their children, and what to do about it.

Over the past few years, we have become more attuned to bullying behaviors and the tragedies that can happen when these behaviors are not taken seriously. In our work at CHC with families and children who have hearing loss, we recognize that there may be special concerns regarding bullying. Research has shown that children with disabilities, including hearing loss, are at an increased risk of being bullied. Physical vulnerability, social skill challenges, or intolerant environments may increase the risk, and the risk can be diminished by creating a safe environment wherever children are – at home, at school and at play. However, research seems to be pointing towards social skills and character as being even more closely linked to involvement in bullying than these more obvious factors. Parents of children with hearing loss can thus benefit from both learning about bullying as well as how to help their children develop social skills to interact effectively at school and elsewhere.

Dana Selznick, CHC’s education specialist and a teacher of the deaf, notes the importance of building a child’s confidence at every stage of development. “When a child is confident about their hearing loss, they can explain with confidence, and without shame, why they need a hearing aid or cochlear implant. The advocacy training and social groups I oversee at CHC build confidence in children and give them the skills they need to handle difficult social situations.”

Bullying Defined

StopBullying.gov defines bullying as “an unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involve a real or perceived power imbalance.” Simply put, one child’s behavior is forced, unwanted against another. Forced behaviors can include using language to say or write mean things, to tease, call someone names, make inappropriate sexual comments, spread rumors, taunt or threaten to cause harm. Social bullying involves intentionally trying to hurt another person’s reputation or relationship, leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with another child, or intentionally embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions including hitting, kicking, pinching, punching, spitting on, tripping, or pushing.

In the past, bullying behaviors were frequently chalked up to “Oh, that’s just kids being kids.” It can be hard for kids (or adults) to make distinctions about what is truly inappropriate behavior. One of the primary distinctions between “kid” behaviors and bullying is that bullying instills fear. Bullying primarily includes behaviors that are shaming, aggressive and repeated over a period of time, and there is a real perceived imbalance of power between the people involved. For example, a kid who bullies uses their power – physical strength, knowledge of something they know will embarrass another, their popularity – to control or harm others.

Warning Signs of Bullying

Less than half of children who are being bullied report it or ask for help, and it is important to talk with children if you suspect something is going on. Some warning signs are:

  • A change in your child’s usual behavior;
  • Unexplained injuries;
  • Lost or destroyed possessions;
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness;
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares;
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school;
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations;
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem;
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as harming themselves or talking about suicide.

It is also important to recognize that these warning signs may indicate other issues such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse, and they should not be ignored.

What to Do if You are Aware of Bullying

It can be uncomfortable or awkward, but adults need to respond swiftly every time they know or witness bullying behavior. When the response is quick, it sends a needed message that the behavior is not acceptable. Adults taking action stops bullying behavior and can help keep kids emotionally and physically safe. Actions adults can take immediately include separating the children involved, making sure everyone is safe, meeting any immediate medical or mental health needs, reassuring the kids involved, including bystanders, and modeling respectful behavior when you intervene.

There are certain actions to avoid. These include forcing other children to say publicly what they saw, questioning the children involved in front of other children, talking to the children involved in a group, and making the children apologize on the spot.

Why This is Important

We all grow up and experience hurts and difficulties. Kids and adults can be mean. Hopefully we have enough positive influences in our lives to cancel out these hurts, but often we find ourselves believing thoughts like, I am bad,  I am weak, Nobody likes me because I am ____. This can result in lasting emotional wounds that often stick around far too long, even influencing our adult lives. Bullying is a shaming behavior and there is great potential for lingering emotional scars if not addressed quickly.

Dr. Sandra Mays Clough, child psychologist here at CHC, says, “Bullying is an ongoing issue in many schools, places of work and communities that is not going to stop through a onetime intervention. It is a mindset: a way of being and interacting for those who perpetrate this behavior; and this way of interacting will likely not change for them without support and encouragement as well. By dealing with the bully, the victim, the witnesses and the environment, a more healthy way of interacting can be sustained.”

If bullying is occurring, creating a hostile environment and becoming a harassment situation, then parents and schools need to know about Federal Civil Rights Laws related to Youth with Disabilities. Some protections are outlined under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Author Jeff Wax, LCSWR, is the Director of the Emotional Health and Wellness Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC) in New York. He and his team of experienced psychologists offer compassionate support in a safe and linguistically accessible environment.

Fluent in American Sign Language, CHC’s therapists serve a clientele that is primarily, but not exclusively, the Deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind communities. Jeff Wax welcomes your questions and inquiries related to this post or to the services provided at CHC. He can be reached by phone at (917) 305-7739.

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More about CHC’s emotional health services »

Meet CHC’s emotional health and wellness team »

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CHC acknowledges the use of information from www.stopbullying.gov, an invaluable resource on the topic of bullying.