School should be a place where children feel safe. Yet for many kids, the school day is overshadowed by name-calling and other forms of abuse. Nearly one third of students say they’ve been bullied at school, and up to 15 percent have been bullied online, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Kids with chronic health conditions like arthritis are even more vulnerable to harassment. “Their peers don’t understand what’s happening with a child who has a chronic illness,” says Allison Dempsey, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McGovern Medical School, University of Texas at Houston.
In elementary school, kids may simply be curious when they ask questions about the condition. As they move into middle school and high school, the bullying becomes more outright, Dr. Dempsey says.
The repercussions of bullying
Bullying has a wide range of physical and psychological effects on the victim, including depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem. Bullied kids are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and less likely to excel in school.
Bullying can also cause kids with chronic conditions to neglect their health. “Some kids might not take their medicines because they’re afraid to leave the classroom to go to the nurse’s office,” Dr. Dempsey says. “Or they may be less likely to participate in gym activities or afterschool sports, which can be a problem for kids with juvenile arthritis who are encouraged to stay active.”
How to stop bullying: An age-by-age guide
Because bullying can start as early as preschool, it’s never too early to start discussing it with your child.
Preschool-aged kids are impulsive and emotional by nature, so it can be hard to distinguish normal behavior from bullying. Two kids fighting over a toy isn’t bullying, but hitting another child to get the toy could be a sign of aggression.
Teach your child how to respectfully interact with their peers. This will help nip bullying in the bud as well as teach them what’s acceptable behavior from others. Ask them to tell you right away if anyone teases or hurts them.
Take an active interest in your child’s daily life. “Continuously have conversations about what the social relationships at school are like,” Dr. Dempsey suggests. Ask about their day, and find out which kids they play with and eat lunch with at school.
Look for any red flags—like if your child eats alone, or says she is teased. Encourage positive peer relationships by enrolling them in afterschool sports or clubs, as well as a juvenile arthritis support group or Arthritis Foundation JA event. “It can be very helpful for kids to interact with peers who have similar conditions,” Dr. Dempsey says.
Anticipate situations that might arise, and plan for them. Have your child rehearse what to say if someone asks why they take medicine, or have trouble walking. To preempt questions, ask your child if he’d be comfortable doing a presentation to his class explaining juvenile arthritis and its symptoms.
Tell your child to let you and a teacher know about any bullying incidents. If the harassment continues, step in and work with the teachers and principal to stop it.
Middle school and high school
By middle school and high school, bullied kids often become more withdrawn. At this age, their fear of being a tattletale can override their desire for relief. Look out for symptoms of bullying—like changes in behavior, increased sadness, irritability, or unusual eating or sleeping patterns.
If you suspect your child is being bullied, talk to them about it. Find out what’s happening, who is involved, and where and when it’s happening. Discuss the incidents with your child’s advisor or teacher. Also review the school’s handbook and make sure the administration is adhering to its anti-bullying policy. If the bullying continues, set up a meeting with the principal.
If at any age, bullying is taking an emotional toll on your child, consider making an appointment with a therapist who treats kids with chronic health conditions. You can get a referral from your child’s rheumatologist, or from the Arthritis Foundation.
Bullying doesn’t necessarily stop when kids graduate from high school. About 15 percent of college students say they’ve been bullied, and 22 percent have been victims of cyberbullying.
Although college students are older and more independent, they might still need your help. Ask your child to let you know about bullying, and have them report any incidents to an authority figure—such as a counselor, professor, or resident advisor.
Dealing with cyberbullies
Thanks to the Internet and social media, the end of the school day no longer brings a break from bullying. “Children may not be as able to escape it when they’re at home,” Dr. Dempsey says. “I think it’s important for parents to monitor their children’s online presence.”
Children’s privacy is important, but parents need to be aware about the types of interactions their kids are having online. She recommends doing weekly phone checks, and friending your kids on social media to see what peers are posting on their pages.
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