This article originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2008 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Now that our children have gone back to school, it’s common to see them worry about test, homework and other academic pressures. But there’s another, more insidious, kind of anxiety that can also be a problem – bullying.
A bully can turn something like going to the bus stop or recess into a nightmare for kids. Bullying can leave deep emotional scars that last for life. In extreme situations, it can culminate in violent threats, property damage, or someone getting seriously hurt.
Bullying is intentional tormenting in physical, verbal, or psychological ways. It can range from hitting, shoving, name-calling, threats, and mocking to extorting money and treasured possessions. Some kids bully by shunning others and spreading rumors about them. Others use email, chat rooms, instant messages, social networking websites, and text messages to taunt others or hurt their feelings.
It's important to take bullying seriously and not just brush it off as something that kids have to "tough out." The effects can be serious and affect a child’s sense of self-worth and future relationships.
Kids bully for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they pick on other children because they need a victim — someone who seems emotionally or physically weaker, or just acts or appears different in some way — to feel more important, popular, or in control. Although some bullies are bigger or stronger than their victims, that's not always the case.
Sometimes children torment others because that's the way they’ve been treated. They may think their behavior is normal because they come from families or other settings where everyone regularly gets angry, shouts, or calls names. Some popular TV shows even seem to promote meanness — people are "voted off," shunned, or ridiculed for their appearance or lack of talent.
Unless your child tells you about bullying — or has visible bruises or injuries — it can be difficult to figure out if it's happening. But there are some warning signs. You might notice your child acting differently or seeming anxious, or not eating and sleeping well, or not doing the things that he or she usually enjoys. When kids seem moodier or more easily upset than usual, or when they start avoiding certain situations, like taking the bus to school, it may be because of a bully.
Let your child know that if he or she is being bullied — or sees it happening to someone else — it's important to talk to someone about it, whether it's you, another adult (a teacher, school counselor, or family friend), or a sibling.
If your child tells you about a bully, focus on offering comfort and support, no matter how upset you are. Kids are often reluctant to tell adults about bullying. They feel embarrassed and ashamed that it's happening. They worry that their parents will be disappointed.
Sometimes kids feel like it's their own fault, that if they looked or acted differently it wouldn't be happening. Sometimes they're scared that if the bully finds out that they told, it will get worse. Others are worried that their parents won't believe them or do anything about it. Or kids worry that their parents will urge them to fight back when they're scared.
Praise your child for being brave enough to talk about it. Remind your child that he or she isn't alone — a lot of people get bullied at some point. Emphasize that it's the bully who is behaving badly — not your child. Reassure your child that you will figure out what to do about it together.
Just remember: as upsetting as bullying can be for you and your family, lots of people and resources are available to help. For more information on bullying, including strategies for children on how to handle bullies, visit the KidsHealth section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, click here.