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How can you protect your child against bullying? A pediatrician shares a few tips

University of Minnesota Health Pediatrician Michael Pitt, MD, works with children and parents to help prevent bullying. His passion for the subject stems from a personal experience when he was a child.
Pediatrician Michael Pitt, MD, shares a personal story about bullying—and tips for parents who want to protect their own children.

Editor’s Note: Pediatrician Michael Pitt, MD, practices at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital. The following is a column he wrote to discuss bullying prevention and to share helpful tips for parents.

In my middle school there was a kid who hated riding the bus to school. Kids picked on him, sometimes tying his shoelaces together or rummaging through his backpack. This happened so often he switched from lace-up to Velcro shoes and added a padlock on the zipper of his bag.

Over the years, I’ve tried to block some of those memories out—but not for the reason you may think. I wasn’t the kid whose shoes were tied together; I was the bully.

Not sticking up for this kid, and even worse—being part of the bullying—is the greatest regret of my life. Several years ago, I tracked him down, met with him in his office and asked for his forgiveness.

In addition to saying how sorry I was, I told him that as a dad and a pediatrician, I now aim to promote awareness about bullying, champion its prevention and how I incorporate my story into patient visits.

Nowadays bullying has moved beyond the playground and school buses and often follows kids home into their online spaces. As a parent and a pediatric care provider, I offer these strategies to engage your children in conversations about cyberbullying.

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Keys to supporting your kids’ online well-being

Helping our children and teens develop a healthy sense of self in a social media-infused world can be a daunting challenge for parents.

Cyberbullying—harassing, insulting, physically threatening, socially excluding and/or humiliating others using email, instant messaging, social media, text messaging and other electronic media—continues to be a major issue. Research by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that more than 20 percent of teens experience bullying behaviors online.

So how do you help your kids deal with cyberbullying? Consider these tips:

  • Establish a safe and open environment for your kids. Make sure they know they can come to you to talk about any issues and should report cyberbullying to you or another trusted adult.
  • Make sure your kids know it’s not OK to participate in any kind of bullying and that they should discourage their friends from bullying others.
  • Talk with your children about appropriate ways to interact online and family guidelines for technology use. Parents and children need to agree about the circumstances under which the children should notify their parents if they receive negative messages or view harmful content online.
  • Do not read everything your teen posts or views (this is perceived as an invasion of privacy), but let your teen know that you will engage in some monitoring. However, if there are issues of cyberbullying, parents need to monitor the situation more closely.

Teach your children to save all bullying messages and to not respond to offensive content. If you can’t tell who sent the messages, you can forward them to your internet service provider or, if necessary, contact the police.

Developing heroes, not bystanders

There are many programs designed to teach youth about bullying and how to respond. Some of the newer campaigns are focusing on observers of bullying not standing by.

Equip your children and teens to be heroes. In other words, equip them to support their peers and to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. The website BullyBust has excellent resources on teaching your children and teens to be “upstanders”—having the courage to address bullying behaviors they observe in their schools and social circles.

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Cultivating resiliency

Resilience is a component of well-being, and simply refers to the capacity to overcome adversity or hardship. It is an essential life skill and is vital to well-being. It’s important to convey to our kids that it’s easy to get caught up in likes, comments, retweets, shares and Snap Scores that they might think are a reflection of how much they are valued.

But in reality, these mean very, very little. Talk with your teens about not giving this “feedback” the power to define their worth.

Finally, as in all relationships, a willingness to be vulnerable by sharing is important. Share your own life experiences with bullying with your children, so that you engage them in meaningful conversations rather than lectures. I want to be intentional; I want to tell my kids about their dad’s mistakes. Hopefully by discussing those mistakes, I can help them take steps to avoid making the same ones.