'I'm afraid to send him back': 5 tips to help your child with bullying

At least one in three adolescent students in Canada have reported being bullied recently, according to the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

47% of Canadian parents reported their child is victim of bullying, research shows

At least one in three adolescent students in Canada have reported being bullied recently, according to the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). (CBC)

For many students back to school is synonymous with back to bullying.

At least one in three adolescent students in Canada have reported being bullied recently, according to the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

The fear of bullying starting up again is weighing on parents like Stephanie Brooks. Her seven-year-old son is beginning Grade 3 this week in Winnipeg.

"I'm afraid to send him back," Brooks told CBC News on Tuesday. "It went on all of last year, and I don't want do that again this year."

She said bullying became so bad last year for her son, she requested he transfer schools.

"He was kicked down a slide. He wouldn't be eating lunch because kids were pushing it away. He'd come home with his thermos almost full — maybe like 2 bites missing out of it," she said.

"Someone told him he should just jump out his window," she said, adding it got to the point where her son was asking "how to suffocate yourself."

Brooks said her son became agitated, withdrawn and his grades began to slip, but she didn't know what was happening.

"I wasn't totally alerted to everything until he started getting upset and retaliating [at school]," she said.

Brooks said her son's teacher called to tell her that her son was being picked on and would leave the class when it became too much.

"I was angry at first, and then it was like, 'OK now it all makes sense. His brand-new attitude problem,' All of this just kind of clicked," she said.

"I feel really badly for my kid because I was bullied in school so it's like, 'I know what you're going through,' and that hurts as a parent."

When she requested a transfer, that's when the school principal became involved and the situation improved according to Brooks.

Debra Pepler, a professor of psychology at York University said Brooks isn't alone in her apprehension to send her son back to class.

"We've done a couple of surveys with partners lately and [bullying] is very high among parents concerns for their children," she said.

Pepler is co-director of, a research authority on bullying in Canada. She and a team of 100 researchers have collected data that says 10 to 15 per cent of children are repeatedly bullied.

Pepler says physical bullying declines with age, while verbal, social and cyberbulling increases with age.  Grade 9 is when bullying tends to peak.

"If a parent is concerned ... There are several things that he or she can do with children to prepare them for the peer group," she said.

Here are some of Pepler's tips for preparing a child and keeping them safe this year.

Tip #1 - Keep lines of communication open

Pepler calls this her most important tip.

"Ensure that there's time in a day where you can both share ... this may be at the dinner table, and there's good data that the frequency of dinner for children helps to buffer the experiences of cyber victimization, cyber bullying," she said, adding it prepares children for coming forward when an incident arises.

Tip #2 - Keep your own anxiety private

Pepler said the more anxious you are about bullying being a problem, the more anxious the child will be. Instead, she said talk to your child about the positives of going back.

"Thinking about the fun of going back to school, the challenges of learning, the interesting extracurricular activities whatever it is that that child really enjoys," she said. "Even if a parent feels concerned, if you can stay calm and talk positively -- help your child think about how to enter peer groups, what they're going to do the first day of school, have they been in touch with somebody to have lunch with ... the child will be more confident moving into the school year."

Tip #3 - Find your child a friend in the class

"If a child has one good friend then [he or she is] protected against bullying," Pepler said.

She said parents should try and find a student or two in the class who might be positive peers for their son or daughter.

If parents don't know the other kids, it's worthwhile approaching the teacher to set up potential friendships, ensure the child is included and to watch out for bullying if it has been a problem for the child in the past.

Tip #4 - Keep an eye on physical symptoms

There are a number of signs your child may exhibit if they're being bullied, according to Pepler.

"Has the child's mood changed?" said Pepler. "Are they not talkative at the dinner table? ... Teachers may notice that the child isn't doing as well at school isn't engaging because they're so worried."

Pepler said the stress sometimes manifests itself as headaches and stomach aches at the beginning of everyday.

"Those are real stomach aches and real headaches that relate to the anxiety that the child's experiencing," she said.

Tip #5 - Educate kids to speak up

Pepler said bullying usually happens when a child has a difference that separates them from students — be it a physical or mental difference.

"The importance there is that the teacher be made aware of the difference and, if necessary, the other children in the class be helped to understand why that child might be acting differently or might be given different tasks," she said.

Pepler said when other children understand another child's difference, be it autism, hyper-activity or other differences, children are more likely to be open to connecting with them.

She also said it's key to tell kids when they see bullying to stand up for the victim.

"In our observations, when a child has the courage to intervene in bullying, bullying actually stops 57 per cent of the time within 10 seconds," she said.

Cyber-bullying: challenge of monitoring 'significant'

A student bullied in person is more vulnerable to being bullied online, according to Pepler.

The Canadian Institute for Health Research found girls are more likely to be bullied online than boys, and the most common form of cyber-bullying involves receiving threatening or aggressive instant messages.

"It doesn't make sense to prevent a child from engaging in digital relationships," Pepler said. "This is the world they're growing up in."

She said the onus is on parents and teachers to ensure kids understand the complexity of digital communication and that they think twice before they do anything online.

"I have three children, and I used to say, 'Put the computer in the kitchen,' but the computer we had in the kitchen is what every child from about eight or nine on has in his or hers hands, so I think the challenge of monitoring is significant," she said.

Pepler said when children are young it makes "tremendous sense" to have access to their exchanges and conversations online.

Parents can gradually reduce their surveillance with the child's age, maturity and demonstration he or she can act responsibly.

As for Brooks, she said she's having conversations with her son about the positives of back-to-school and she's hopeful the new year is a new beginning.

"He's happy that he's going to be in the teacher's class that he picked because they let him pick a teacher and that he's going to be separated from these bullies," she said.