If it’s true we have a bullying epidemic in our country right now, then I’ve experienced the illness.

I was twelve, maybe thirteen years old. Small and skinny and weighing in at 72 lbs wet, life overall was pretty good when for no known reason Jeff and Keith decided to make my life a daily nightmare.

They hid behind evergreens and crawled out from under cars. They ran at me screaming, and stealthily rode up on bikes. If I was lucky when they caught me, they knocked me to the ground and only kicked. If I wasn’t, they hit much harder, tore up homework, and did stuff to embarrass me.

That was a generation ago, when one in seven American children was a victim of bullying. Today one in three children is seriously bullied sometime during their childhood life.

Ouch! Our societal corpus cries out. Enough! What can we do about it?

As with all things cumbersome, embarrassing, and hard, first we need to learn about the problem. Then we sit down with our children and talk.

On any given day, 160,000 children in America skip school to avoid being bullied. They then become truants and in trouble with their parents, teachers and sometimes the law. The problem escalates; out of every 10 students who drops out of school does so because of repeated bullying.

And while we think of bullying as being one kid slamming another kid up against a locker, there are actually four distinct forms of this social disease:

  • Physical (the locker)
  • Verbal (by far the most common form of bullying)
  • Emotional & Relational (deliberately excluding the targeted child and encouraging others to do the same)
  • Cyber (the fastest growing form; the next issue of Inspired Woman has an article dedicated to keeping our children safe from cyber-bullying)

Bullying doesn’t just happen like a spontaneous playground fight; it’s an intentional, aggressive and well-thought out act. It is also repetitive in nature, and always involves an unequal balance of power. Yes, the aggressor may be physically more powerful than the victim. Then again, maybe the victim is bigger or physically stronger, but his spirit or self-confidence has been broken through years of neglect or abuse at home. Their vulnerability is easily spotted by the bully.

The three parties to bullying are:

  • The Victim: Like rape victims, victims of repeat bullying suffer long-term damage such as lowered self-esteem, depression, and a sense of loss of self-dominion.
  • The Bully: Bullies aren’t natural born leaders exploring their sense of authority, as some parents of bullies want to believe. Children who bully stand a much lower chance of succeeding in their professional and personal lives, and children who bully by age eight have a 25 percent chance of having a criminal record by age 26.
  • The Witness: Eighty-five percent of all children will be a witness to bullying at some point. While naturally hesitant to become involved, studies show that The Witness can stop 57% of bullying incidences in less than 60 seconds just by asking the bully to stop.

Waiting for our child to tell us they are a victim of bullying isn’t enough since adults are told only 40 percent of the time because:

  • Being the victim of bullying makes a child feel helpless.
  • The child fears being seen as weak or a tattletale, and fears backlash from the bully.
  • Bullying is a humiliating experience and kids may not want adults to know what the bully is saying about them, regardless of how untrue.
  • The kids who are targeted by the bully may already be socially awkward, afraid, isolated, or emotionally hurt.

Some signs that point to a bullying problem with your child are:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches, stomach aches, or faking illness to avoid going to school
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as harming themselves or talking about suicide. Childhood bully victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

Even if bullying isn’t an issue in your house right now, your child needs to be prepared in case it ever does happen. Lovingly let your children know you are aware of bullying and that if they are bullied or harassed – or see it happening to someone else – it’s important they talk to you or another adult (i.e. a teacher or counselor) about it.

If your child does tell you, listen calmly and completely, and don’t immediately react. Kids often worry their parents will be disappointed or just make the problem worse.

Five smart strategies to teach your children to keep them from becoming targets are:

  • To stay calm and cool. Bullies thrive on hurting others; don’t get ruffled.
  • Look the bully directly in the eye and say, in a solid assertive voice something like, “Come on. Don’t be mean.”
  • Buddy up for safety. While the child is on the bully’s radar screen, the child should stay close to friends while going to school, using the bathroom, etc.
  • Don’t fight the battle alone.Your child needs to know they can talk to you, and while sometimes talking to a bully’s parents can be constructive, it’s best to do this where a school official or counselor is present. It lets the bully and the bully’s parents know there is a problem, and you aren’t going to suffer in silence.
  • Remove the bait. During my career I have to deal with death threats and other high risk moments that require me to alter my life patterns, so I understand that no one likes someone else to determine how we live. Still if it’s lunch money or gadgets that the school bully is after, encourage your child to pack a lunch or go to school gadget-free until the problem passes.

Like with a grass fire, the way to respond if a persistent bully targets your child is quickly and firmly:

  • Don’t ignore it or think kids can work it out without adult help.
  • Don’t try to sort out the facts. The issue is the violence and the bullying; the facts are secondary.
  • Get police help or medical attention immediately if a weapon is involved, or if there was bodily harm or sex abuse, or threats of physical injury or sex abuse.

The more you teach your children about the dynamics of bullying, the less likely they are to become victims. They know the problem exists; we parents can make them aware that we know it too. If there’s a problem, together we will find the solution.

******* This article was originally written for the October 2015 issue of Inspired Woman Magazine InspiredWomanOnline.com