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Ours is not the perfect little town. For all the amazing reasons that make this a great place to raise kids, we must not disregard that there is bullying in our schools.
Bullying is a form of aggression in which one or more children intentionally intimidate, harass or harm another child who is perceived as being unable to defend himself.
There is the aggressor, the victim and the bystander. The bully usually comes from an unfortunate place that is often chaotic with poorly set boundaries and expectations. The bully is unhappy about something or does not know how to get along with other kids.
Which kids tend to become the victims? Patterns of bullying are similarly described in various countries. The bully begins the school year by picking on many children, but those whose emotional responses gratify the bully’s needs will become the chosen victims for the rest of the year.
Among boys, the victims are generally smaller or weaker and among girls, the victims are often more socially isolated than the bullies.
Recent epidemiological studies conducted by the NIH indicate that among U.S. sixth-10th graders 30 percent are either being bullied or are doing the bullying.
Bullying may take a variety of forms, all of which can be pretty nasty. The most common is verbal (name-calling), physical (pushing or punching), relational (purposely leaving someone out of a game or group), extortion (stealing someone’s money or belongings) and cyber-bullying. Among boys physical bullying is more prevalent and among girls it is relational.
One distinct group that cannot be overlooked in this discussion is the obese child. A recent landmark study found that just being obese can attract bullies, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, social skills or academic achievement. Remarkably, parents of obese children rate bullying as their top health concern. Obese children who are bullied experience greater depression, anxiety and loneliness than their peers.
The psychosocial consequences of bullying can be profound and the poorest outcomes are actually with the bullies, themselves. Children labeled as aggressive or bullies by age 8 are more likely to be incarcerated, less likely to be steadily employed (except in congress?) or in a stable romantic relationship by age 30.
Victims may become depressed and feel isolated. They often internalize the bully’s criticism, feel they deserve the teasing and become ashamed. Kids who are bullied experience real suffering that can interfere with their social and emotional development and school performance.
In rare cases, the only option perceived by the victim to escape the tormenting has been suicide. Bystanders can become sad or scared by what they have seen.
With primary prevention, early parenting behaviors such as cognitive stimulation and emotional support have been shown to confer resilience against the future development of bullying behaviors in elementary school aged children.
Over the last 30 years, European researchers have studied bullying behavior and have developed preventive programs that are school-based and propose specific interventions at the school-wide, classroom and individual levels on the basis that every bullying episode involves three groups: bullies, victims and bystanders.
Some researchers say that a shift in mindset must first occur that bullying behaviors cannot be considered a normative rite of passage.
What to do. Always tell an adult. It is the adults’ job to keep kids safe. Period.
Statistics show that 85 percent of bullying episodes are witnessed, but rarely by adults, making it difficult to pick up on.
Form strong friendships. A child with loyal friends is less likely to be bullied. Stay in a group. Often kids who are alone are picked on. If it feels safe, try to stand up to the bully; not by fighting, but by telling the bully you don’t like it and to stop it. Often those who bully like to get a response, especially if it makes the victim upset or intimidated. Simply staying cool, keeping composure and walking away is often best.
A critical responsibility in each bullying episode lies neither with the victim nor the aggressor. Bystanders who become witnesses play a collusive role in bullying by becoming the audience. It takes real courage to step out from that role and either face the bully or take the audience away.
Of course, bullying is not restricted to the school yard, but is woven into every fabric of human interaction, including the workplace, marriages, social circles and organizations. Perhaps the best way we can guide our children through brushes with bullying is in becoming the positive role model they can look up to.
Dr. Tom Csanadi
Child and Adolescent Medicine