By Peter Jung, M.D., Blue Fish Pediatrics, Memorial Hermann Memorial City
Most adults say they’d rather do just about anything than relive their school days, and it’s not just memories of homework that causes them to cringe. An estimated 50 percent of adults say they experienced bullying in school—a problem that, unlike chalkboards and electric typewriters, hasn’t gone by the wayside.
The good news is that people now recognize the problem and promote acceptance of others, no matter their race, sexuality, disability or perceived difference.
The bad news is that an entire new category of bullying has emerged, one that’s 24-7, 365 days a year. Cyber bullying is on the Internet instead of in the hallway, making it difficult for schools to enforce anti-bullying protocol.
Whether bullying is verbal, physical or cyber, it takes a toll on children. Being bullied increases the risk of alcohol and drug abuse, skipping school, poor grades and low self-esteem. The emotional distress can manifest physically as headaches, stomachaches and sleep problems.
But this is one of those parental conversations that’s easy to dive into, since most parents have either been bullied or witnessed it happening to others. If you suspect your child is being bullied, try to draw him or her out by sharing your own story. Then, come up with a plan.
Let’s start with what not to do. If your child tells you he’s got a bully on his back, don’t ask him what he did to deserve it. And don’t downplay the seriousness of it by saying it’s a natural part of growing up and therefore best dealt with by simply rolling with the punches.
Validate your child’s feelings and try to come up with a solution. Unfortunately, it’s true that bullies are more likely to prey on those who are timid or show fear. Even ignoring the bully can provoke aggression, so teach your child how to be assertive. Perhaps you can role play, and have your child clearly and confidently state, “Please do not bother me,” or, “I know I’m in a wheelchair/I’m short/my skin is a different color, but that doesn’t mean you can pick on me,” or whatever words best fit your child’s age, ability and situation.
If the bullying continues, encourage your child to discuss it with a school counselor, teacher or principal. If parental intervention is required, ask for a written copy of the school’s anti-bullying policy. Make sure you document every email you send, phone call you make, and meeting you attend. Without a paper trail, it’s hard to prove allegations. Even the National Bullying Prevention Center says, “If it is not in writing, it does not exist.”
In fact, the Center offers templates to help you with letter writing. The “Notifying the School About a Bullying Situation” template also comes in a format specific to children with disabilities. Visit www.pacer.org/bullying for more information.
Most parents have witnessed sandbox scuffles, those times when John yanks a toy out of Jane’s hand, or Jane sinks her teeth into John, or John shoves his way to the top of the slide, or Jane blames another child for her own misdeed.
They are not baby bullies; they are preschoolers who haven’t yet learned how to empathize. They simply don’t understand how their actions make other children feel. Most kids eventually learn to empathize, but it can also be taught with parental advice and guidance. Kids in pre-school have the opportunity to hone this skill, but by the time they’re in elementary school, it should come rather naturally. If it doesn’t, there may be a larger issue at hand.
Bullies most often learn aggressive behavior elsewhere—at home, church, after-school care, or any number of potential places. They go to school and emulate what they saw or what they’ve personally experienced at the hands of their own bully. Their bully might be a sibling, caregiver, or even a parent.
If your kid is the bully, the best thing you can do is teach him or her empathy. Role play to make your child understand how other kids feel when they’re being bullied, and establish clear expectations about the changes that need to be made – and what consequences will arise if the bullying continues.
Most children do not outgrow bullying without some kind of intervention. It’s a learned behavior and one that’s best nipped in the bud.
Texas Anti-Bullying Legislation*:
• went into effect Sept. 1
• establishes the definition of bullying
• integrates bullying education into the health curriculum
• allows school boards to transfer the bully, not just the victim, to another campus
• provides counseling to bullies and victims
• protects those who report bullying
• prohibits the discipline of a victim for engaging in reasonable self-defense
*Source: Texas Association of School Boards