As Wisconsin’s children head back to school, it is safe to assume many parents, with good reason, still worry about bullying.
Seven years ago, the U.S. Department of Education actively began programs to combat school bullying. On the surface, the programs are working. In 2005, as many as 32 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds reported being bullied at school. By 2013, it was down to around 22 percent. Good news if your child is in the safer group. Not-so-good news if you child is one still facing harassment.
As a pediatrician, I’ve lost count of the cases I saw in both roles— the child who bullies and the one who is singled out. In a way, classrooms are not unlike fish tanks. The “dominant” fish will chase the submissive ones. It’s the same way with children. The more servile child can also become more aggressive if they perceive another youngster as weaker. Just like fish, a bullied child in one situation may be the bully in another.
To make matters worse, when life situations are already difficult, bullying often escalates. Children who come from low-income families, have disabilities, live with one parent, are overweight, or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) become easy targets for bullies.
Profiles: 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 victims and perpetrators of bullying.
While bullies tend to have a high social standing among classmates, both bullies and those bullied are 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 are 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.
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 cyberbullying, where malicious comments and information about someone end 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 are informed of an episode, the staff needs to include 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 is important to teach parents as well as children about bullying. Experts, whether educators, 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 bullying and talk to their children about it. Since bullying is linked to obesity and other disabilities, it is important parents insist their children eat nutritiously, and receive good medical care and counseling.
Parental guidance about proper online rules can also stop abuse. Teaching children it is inappropriate to send photos, texts, tweets, or other online messages to resolve arguments will save unnecessary distress.
Settling disputes in person or by telephone assures more privacy and is more effective than arguing online. Finally, if bullying occurs — enough to disrupt a child’s life — parents should seek counseling with a family therapist.
The bottom line is that bullying has dropped in the last decade and that is good news. However, the long-term outlook for perpetrators and victims portends serious consequences. Therefore, it is essential that parents and schools work together to stop bullying among children.
Dr. Peter Karofsky, a local pediatrician, was in practice for 43 years. His first novel, “And the Oaks Heard Them All,” which deals partially with bullying, is available at PeterKarofsky.com.
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