Friday, May 21, 2010

Is Your Child Being Bullied?

by Sharon B. Richter, D.O.
Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics, The Herman & Walter Samuelson Children's Hospital at Sinai

Bullying has received a lot of attention lately, with many school districts revising their anti-bullying policies in the wake of cases like Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince.

Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional, repeated over time, and involves an imbalance of power or strength. A child who is being bullied has a hard time defending himself or herself.

Most people think of bullying in the form of physical aggression, such as hitting or pushing or in terms of teasing and verbal insults. But bullying also includes less observable behaviors such as social exclusion or isolation, stealing or damaging property, and threatening the victim, or forcing him to do things.

Cyberbullying is a relatively new form of bullying, where the victim is harassed through e-mail, cell phone, texts, instant messaging, chat room exchanges, or a website. On the Internet, the bully is allowed to be anonymous. If the target of the bully does not know who is bullying them, there is additional stress associated. The anonymity of the bully also leads bullies to engage in behaviors that they might not do face-to-face. Social media is accessible 24 hours per day, so victims may receive test or instant messages or read things about themselves when they are anywhere in addition to school, such as in their own home. Victims of cyberbullying are also less likely to report the bullying to adults for fear of having their parents remove their cell phone or computer from them.

There is an enormous impact from bullying on not only the victim, but also the bystanders, and school or community. Victims of bullying are more likely to have emotional health difficulties such as depression, suicidal thoughts and low self-esteem. They are also likely to have lower grades than their peers. Bystanders are affected as they may believe that they are in an unsafe environment, appear fearful, and feel powerless to act and guilty for not acting. When teachers and school administrators do not take action to stop the bullying, the school environment becomes one of fear and disrespect. Students feel insecure, have difficulty learning, and do not trust that the adults care about them or have control over the students. Bullying behaviors need to be taken seriously by all adults who interact with children.

There is a common perception regarding bullies that they are also more likely to have emotional health difficulties. Many bullies themselves also have poor grades, and are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as getting into frequent fights. They are more likely to steal and vandalize property, drink alcohol, smoke, and carry a weapon.

However, there are also many bullies who are very popular among their peers and their teachers. This is more common among bullying girls but can be seen with the bullying boys as well. For this reason, it is often difficult for adults to believe that these students engage in bullying behavior.

Some children who are bullied may actually start the fight with the bully, and this behavior needs to be identified and stopped. For these children, called “bully-victims”, social skills may need to be directly taught. These children are at the highest risk for later mental health and emotional problems.

Although bullying has always occurred, it is now occurring with greater prevalence and increased lethality than it has in the past. Up to 25 percent of students have reported being victims of bullies.

There are warning signs that bullying is occurring to a child. In addition to the obvious bruise, torn clothing or missing and destroyed property, there are emotional signs. A child may be experiencing bullying if he or she appears sad or anxious, avoids school, withdraws from social activities, or has declining grades. Additional signs of cyberbullying are that the child appears sad or upset after using the computer or reading a cell phone message.

If you are a parent or educator, you can be a partner in anti-bullying interventions. Effective interventions for bullies need to come from adults in charge. These interventions must be implemented in schools and communities and alter the response towards bullying of teachers and other supervising adults. Changes within the upper reaches of administration are needed in the school and community system in order for the interventions to have a lasting effect. If you are a parent, you can also use these questions to start a conversation about bullying with your child.

While bullied children are at risk for later emotional and behavioral problems, there are some factors that promote resiliency in children who are victims of bullying. Maternal warmth, sibling warmth and a positive atmosphere at home are all particularly important in bullied children for promoting emotional and behavioral adjustment. Parents can help their children find friends, inside and outside of school, with whom to spend time. Children need to be taught to avoid isolation in school, as bullies are less likely to target people when they are alone than when in a group. Parents of children who are bullied need to be in contact with school personnel, encourage their child to report the bullying to the authorities, and expect that the bully will receive a consequence.

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