As students return to classrooms and playgrounds around the commonwealth for a new school year, Virginia Cooperative Extension is urging parents to talk to their child about bullying and to understand their school's policies on this important topic.

“One of the most important things a parent can do to address bullying is to talk to their child about the issue, regardless of whether they think he or she is the victim of bullying or exhibiting bullying behavior,” said Crystal Tyler-Mackey, a community viability specialist in Extension’s Southeast District. “Most schools have a bullying policy, and parents need to familiarize themselves with their child’s school policy on the matter.”

Although child development experts do not have a single definition for bullying, they do agree that it can take many forms, including name-calling and verbal harassment, threats, physical intimidation, and harm to person or property. A 2001 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed that 17 percent of more than 15,000 of students in middle school or their freshman and sophomore years of high school had been bullied at least “sometimes,” while 19 percent of these students had bullied others at least “sometimes.”

“Both boys and girls are dealing with bullying in schools, but often in different ways,” Tyler-Mackey said. “Boys are more likely to bully on a one-to-one basis using physical intimidation, whereas girls are more likely to bully in groups and use psychological intimidation such as excluding others from groups and spreading rumors.”

Youth are now also dealing with cyber-bullying, or the use of new technologies to intimidate and harass other children. According to Tyler-Mackey, this may involve text messaging and instant messaging, social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace, and cell phones. At times, safety concerns may override a child or adolescent’s need for privacy, and parents who think there may be a problem with cyber-bullying may need to review their son or daughter’s online activities.

Whether or not a child is dealing with bullying in the form of traditional name-calling or text messages, parents can take steps to help their child if they know he or she is being bullied. “While there isn’t a quick do-this-and-you-won’t-be-bullied formula that parents can follow, they can provide an open forum in their household for children to talk to them about bullying,” Tyler-Mackey said.

Child-development experts recommend that parents do not blame their child for the bullying and do not encourage physical retaliation. Instead, parents should work with school personnel such as a teacher, school counselor, or principal to solve the problem and encourage their child to build resiliency through hobbies, extra-curricular activities, and friendships with students who do not bully. Most importantly, parents should make sure their child is in a safe home environment and knows how to seek help from an adult if he or she encounters hostile classmates or peers.

“On the other side of the coin, parents also need to talk to their child about bullying if they think he or she is the one doing the bullying,” Tyler-Mackey said.

In this situation, parents need to make it clear that bullying is an unacceptable behavior in their family and work with school officials to send a clear message to their child that intimidation and harassment must stop.