The Bullies Are Back
Pediatrician Offers Tips To Help Kids Combat School Harassment
BY DR. PETER KAROFSKY
As children across the U.S. head back to school this fall, it’s safe to assume many parents, with good reason, still worry about bullying.
Seven years ago, the United States Department of Education actively began programs to combat school bullying. On the surface, the programs are working. According to data analyzed by the National Center for Education Statistics, 32 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds reported being bullied at school in 2007. By 2013, that number had dropped to 22 percent. Additionally, a new study published in May in the journal Pediatrics found that the prevalence of bullying and related behaviors generally decreased over a 10-year period between 2005 and 2014.
That’s good news in general, but not-so-good-news if your child is one who’s still facing harassment.
As a pediatrician for more than four decades, I lost count of the cases I saw in both roles—both the child who bullies and the one who is singled out for torment. In a way, classrooms of children are not unlike fish in fish tanks. The “dominant” fish will chase the submissive ones.
At the same time, a picked-on child can also become increasingly aggressive if he or she perceives another youngster as weaker. A bullied child in one situation may become the bully in another.
All 50 states have some kind of anti-bullying law on the books and schools are constantly being called upon to implement better prevention programs. I’ve compiled some back-to-school reminders for kids, parents and teachers to peruse proactively, in case bullying becomes an issue.
Profile of bullies and those bullied. Bullies come in all sizes. The largest are no more prone to pick on others than the smallest. The exceptions are overweight children, who are more likely than appropriate-weight kids to be both victims and perpetrators of bullying.
While bullies tend to have a high social standing among classmates, both bullies and those bullied are also more likely to be ostracized socially by peers. The incidence of depression and loneliness is higher among bullies, and they are more likely to be involved in criminal behaviors when they’re older. Children who are bullied are also prone to depression. They are also less likely to succeed in school and more likely to develop drug addiction.
To make matters worse, the chances of being bullied often escalate for children in higher risk groups. Kids who come from low-income families, have disabilities, live with one parent, identify as LGBT, or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) become easy targets for bullies.
Furthermore, recent studies have shown that youth involved in bullying in any way–both bullies and victims of bullying–are more likely to think about and attempt suicide than kids or teens who are not involved or affected by bullying.
Preludes to bullying. Several “gateway behaviors” may lead to overt bullying. Discourteous acts like snickering, eye rolling, and whispering in front of another person are often preludes to more offensive conduct. Another gateway behavior is cyber-bullying, where malicious comments and information about someone ends up online.
Role of schools. Within schools, teachers, nurses, counselors, and administrative staff must discuss bullying with students at frequent and scheduled intervals. They also need to make themselves readily available to receive students who bully or have been bullied.
If they’re informed of an episode, staff members need to involve the parents of every child involved. In addition, when an event occurs at school, regular programs should be interrupted to rehash the encounter as rapidly as possible.
It’s important for educators to teach parents, as well as children, about bullying. Experts such as medical personnel, psychologists or social workers should be brought in for parent-teacher conferences. Information is as essential as interactive question and answer sessions.
Role of parents. Parents must learn about the dangers and impact of bullying and be willing to talk to their children openly and honestly.
Since bullying is linked to obesity and other disabilities, it’s important that parents insist their children eat nutritiously and receive good medical care. If bullying occurs—enough to disrupt a child’s life—parents should seek counseling with a family therapist.
Parental guidance about proper online rules can also stop abuse. Teaching children that it’s inappropriate to send photos, texts, tweets, or other online messages to resolve arguments will save unnecessary distress. Children should be taught that settling disputes in person or by telephone assures more privacy and is more effective than arguing online.
For more information and help regarding bullying, some of the many groups and organizations devoted to the issue include: stopbullying.gov, stompoutbullying.org, thebullyproject.com, pacerteensagainstbullying.org, and pacerkidsagainstbullying.org.
Dr. Peter Karofsky, a Madison, Wisconsin-based pediatrician, recently retired from the medical profession after 43 years. Now an author, his first novel, And the Oaks Heard Them All, confronts the issue of bullying. It’s available at PeterKarofsky.com.
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