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This article originally appeared in the Sept. 22, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

With each new school year comes an opportunity for children to meet new kids and make new friends. Unfortunately, not every new acquaintance your child makes will be a friendly one. Although the bullies of our school days have grown up and hopefully learned their lessons, new ones seem to appear every year in schools across the country.

Although bullying isn’t a new problem, child experts are developing a greater understanding of just how much bullying can hurt the victims. A number of high-profile suicides of bullied children have made news headlines in recent years, drawing more attention to this age-old problem.

Parents must take bullying seriously, says Dr. Dianne Elfenbein, director of Adolescent Medicine at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. Although many children will experience brief episodes of teasing from their peers, some children experience a more serious form of bullying.

“If a child did something embarrassing one day and got picked on one time, that’s not particularly damaging,” Dr. Elfenbein said. “But when a child is singled out for bullying every day, then that becomes very hurtful and can have long-term consequences.”

A child can become the target of a bully for many different reasons. The child may be picked on for being overweight, underweight or having a medical condition; not having clothes as nice as a classmate’s; being a different race or ethnicity; or simply being perceived as weak and more susceptible to bullying.

The traditional bully portrayed frequently in pop culture may push a smaller child down and take his milk money, but the role of a bully has changed in the 21st century. Much of the bullying has moved off the playground and onto the internet and cell phones.

“Boys are more likely to do physical bullying, like pushing and shoving,” Elfenbein said. “For girls, the bullying is more subtle. They will try to exclude someone from their group and gossip about them or go onto social networking sites and say mean things about them.”

Wherever the bullying occurs, it is important that parents recognize and address it. Children will typically show signs of being bullied, such as coming home upset or with unexplained injuries; not wanting to go to school and faking an illness to avoid school; and withdrawing from friends or activities that the child used to enjoy.

Kids who experience bullying are often embarrassed to talk about it, believing they should be ashamed of being picked on. Parents can find a matter-of-fact way to talk to their child and explain that bullying is not their fault and that it’s never acceptable.

To prevent some forms of cyber-bullying, which happens on social networking sites and cell phones, parents should talk to their kids about the consequences of putting personal information and compromising photos of themselves on the internet. Children may not realize the long-term issues that can arise from these photos and information, and it can be hard to understand that nothing can really be deleted off the internet.

There is no magic solution to dealing with bullies. Parents can work with their children to help them stand up for themselves in a non-confrontational way, but oftentimes, talking to the school or the bully’s parent may be necessary to protect the child.

Many schools have anti-bullying initiatives in place. This is an important step in creating an environment in which children feel safe and can learn and thrive.

“From the school’s standpoint, we need a culture in which parents, teachers and students understand that bullying should not be tolerated,” Elfenbein said. “Teachers can create peer pressure that views bullying as socially unacceptable. This peer pressure becomes very important in modifying behavior as we go through the teenage years.”

Parents with any concerns about their child’s school experience should speak with the teacher, principal or superintendent. Every child deserves to feel safe at school.

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, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at www.cardinalglennon.com.

9/22/2011 
 
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