As parents, we all want a school environment for our children where they can grow intellectually, nourishing their talents and interests to put them on a path to a rewarding life as adults. We think about the big things such as the quality of the school, the qualifications of teachers, enrichment activities, and, of course, school safety. But, what if all of that is derailed by just one kid—a bully—who decides to target your child? Would you know it is happening and what to do about it?
The consequences of bullying are heart-wrenching. A team at Yale University analyzed research reports and found that children who are victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children.
We see the term a lot, but what exactly is “bullying”? According to one advocacy group, “Bullying comes in many forms especially when it comes to teens and children who face bullies on a regular basis. They often have to deal with bullying in school, outside of school, online, and in various forms like name-calling, verbal abuse, and even physical bullying.”
Verbal Bullying – may start as name-calling, but progress to persistent verbal abuse, including slander, libel, and rumors. Cyberbullying is a common form of verbal abuse and may include spreading false rumors, lies, and embarrassing claims against the victim.
Physical Bullying – Repeated negative physical interactions against a victim can include hitting, pushing, tripping, slapping, spitting, stealing/destroying possessions, and even crossing the line into sexual harassment.
Signs Your Child Might Be A Victim
As unpredictable as teenagers can be, it is important to stay closely attuned to your child’s habits. Something as simple as skipping breakfast can be a sign that your child is experiencing verbal, cyber, or physical bullying. Other potential signs your child might be a victim include:
- Unexplainable injuries
- Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
- Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
- Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
- Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide
What To Do About It
ACTION PLAN: If you have tried to work out the issue by talking with your child, teachers, and school administrators and find the situation is continuing or escalating. Keep this action plan handy.
Problem: There has been a crime, or someone is at immediate risk of harm.
Action: Call 911
Problem: Someone is feeling hopeless, helpless, thinking of suicide.
Action: Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in our national network. These centers provide 24-hour crisis counseling and mental health referrals.
Problem: Someone is acting differently than normal, such as always seeming sad, anxious, struggling to complete tasks, or not being able to care for themselves.
Action: Find a local counselor or other mental health services
The Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help consumer portal prototype can help consumers get to the correct resource to solve their Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder insurance coverage issue.
Problem: A child is being bullied in school.
Action: Contact the:
- School counselor
- School principal
- School superintendent
- State Department of Education
See more on working with the school.
Problem: The school is not adequately addressing harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion.
- School superintendent
- State Department of Education
- U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights
- U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division
Suicide Warning Signs
The lead researcher on the Yale study said, “When we see kids who are targets of bullying, we should ask them if they’re thinking about hurting themselves.” Critical suicide warning signs can include:
- Showing signs of depression, like ongoing sadness, withdrawal from others, losing interest in favorite activities, or trouble sleeping or eating
- Talking about or showing an interest in death or dying
- Engaging in dangerous or harmful activities, including reckless behavior, substance abuse, or self-injury
- Giving away favorite possessions and saying goodbye to people
- Saying or expressing that they can’t handle things anymore
- Making comments that things would be better without them
If your child is displaying any of the above symptoms, talk to them about your concerns and get them help right away, such as from a counselor, doctor, or at the emergency room.
More Than Just A Problem Between Individuals?
Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School, observes, “While some psychologists make a case that bullying is a transaction between individuals, bullying is also a systemic problem, arising out of a culture of hostility, fear, shame, excessive competition, and lack of respect for difference. If we create school systems in which compulsion, coercion, hierarchy, and fear of failure are central features of the academic experience, and essential to motivating and controlling students, then the energy from those negative experiences will seek expression.”
Writer Kerry McDonald maintains that “The best way to avoid bullying in schools is to question compulsory attendance laws, expand education choice, and create learning environments that nurture childhood freedom and autonomy.”
Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn sums up the root cause of bullying this way, “Bullying occurs regularly when people who have no political power and are ruled in top-down fashion by others are required by law or economic necessity to remain in that setting.” He uses the example of prisons, “Those who are bullied can’t escape, and they have no legislative or judicial power to confront the bullies. They may report bullying to the prison guards and warden, but the guards and warden may not know whom to believe and may have greater vested interest in hiding bullying than in publicizing it and dealing with it openly.”
Grey’s solution to the problem is this, “There is only one way to get rid of the bullying and the general sense of unfairness that pervades our schools, and that is to restructure radically the way the schools are governed. If our children are required to be in school, then they must be granted a real voice in the way the school is run. If they are not granted such a voice, then school is prison and we can expect students to react in many of the same ways that prisoners everywhere react.”
Grey’s suggestion may sound radical. But, as our society grapples with the problem of school bullying which often morphs into workplace bullying, it seems time to take a wider view and look for systemic solutions.
Sources & References
Bullying Statistics. Bullying and Suicide. http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/bullying-and-suicide.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). QuickStats: Death Rates for Motor Vehicle Traffic Injury, Suicide, and Homicide Among Children and Adolescents aged 10–14 Years — United States, 1999–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. November 4, 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6543a8.htm?s_cid=mm6543a8_w
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). QuickStats: Suicide Rates, for Teens Aged 15–19 Years, by Sex — United States, 1975–2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report August 4, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6630a6.htm
Gray P. School Bullying: A Tragic Cost of Undemocratic Schools. Psychology Today. May 12, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201005/school-bullying-tragic-cost-undemocratic-schools
Kim YS, Leventhal B. Bullying and suicide. A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health. 2008 Apr-Jun;20(2):133-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18714552
McDonald K. Why is there so much bullying in schools? Intellectual Takeout. July 27, 2017. https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/why-there-so-much-bullying-schools
Olson K. The Shadow Side of Schooling: What Jungian Psychology Can Tell Us About Bullying. Education Week. April 21, 2008. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/04/23/34olson_web.h27.html
Sampasa-Kanyinga H, Roumeliotis P, Farrow CV, Shi YF. Breakfast skipping is associated with cyberbullying and school bullying victimization. A school-based cross-sectional study. Appetite. 2014 Aug;79:76-82. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24746660
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Warning Signs for Bullying. September 8, 2017. StopBullying.gov https://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/warning-signs/index.html
Yale University. Bullying-suicide link explored in new study by researchers at Yale. Yale News. July 16, 2008. https://news.yale.edu/2008/07/16/bullying-suicide-link-explored-new-study-researchers-yale
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