One of the biggest concerns in any school is bullying. Child health experts remind parents to keep a watchful eye on their children for behavioral problems and to pay attention for instances of bullying.
Susan Sylvia, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with St. Louis Children's Hospital, says bullying occurs most frequently in late elementary school and middle school and can take several forms. Boy bullies tend to intimidate with physical aggression. Girls engage more in verbal teasing.
Schools are paying more attention to bullying than in years past. But Dr. Sylvia says there is no substitute for parental involvement. If you have concerns, talk with your child, but keep it open-ended.
"Rather than asking them, 'Are you worried about X,Y or Z?, ask them 'Tell me how you feel about going back to school? What are your concerns and worries?' So the child can spontaneously present what's on his or her mind -- rather than copping out by asking 'yes-no' questions," explains Dr. Sylvia. "Kids are more likely to open up and talk when they've been given a little less structure in the conversation."
For a child who is being bullied, the first step may be assertiveness training. Children who get bullied tend to be more passive. Simply telling the child to ignore the bully or to walk away may fall short.
"I think our first impulse is to instruct our kids - when they are being teased or bullied - to walk away, to stand tall and walk away, to ignore it," says Dr. Sylvia. "And while that's not necessarily bad advice, it leaves a child feeling helpless, and it doesn't necessarily increase their self-esteem. Sometimes it can decrease self-esteem by making them feel like they are powerless."
Dr. Sylvia says children who are victims may need help standing up to a bully, or training in dealing with difficult people.
"It can be an assertive response like, telling the other child to 'knock it off,' or it can be a little more savvy," says Dr. Sylvia. "For example, one child may get satisfaction when he's teased about his clothing by doing this: The bully says ' that's the ugliest shirt I've ever seen' and he says, 'you know, you might be right.' Feels pretty good that he had a comeback, but also good that he didn't handle it in an aggressive, bullying fashion."
If serious problems continue, Dr. Sylvia suggests parents instruct their child to get help from an authority. And finally, parents may want to speak to a teacher or school official because no instances of abuse or intimidation should be tolerated.