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Beyond Teasing: One-Third of Today's Kids Involved in Bullying

Caring for the Crisis continued...

"It is important for schools and parents to be alert to the warning signs of bullying and to intervene as early as possible," Fassler tells WebMD.

It's also important to understand the psychology of bullies. Bullies usually have been victims themselves, says Leon Hoffman, MD, a child psychoanalyst and co-director of The New York Psychoanalytic Society's Parent-Child Center. "Or they have been put to shame by someone else -- either a teacher who humiliates him in class, or a parent who is trying to discipline him. Shame is one of the worst feelings to experience. Effective discipline is within the context of a loving relationship, not in the context of trying to shame your kid into some kind of obedience. Shaming creates a terribly vicious cycle. Kids feel compelled to take it out on somebody else."

In New York schools where Hoffman is a consultant, bullying and teasing are not tolerated, he tells WebMD. "The rules are made very clear, very explicit. Nobody makes fun of anybody, nobody calls anybody else names, there's no sexual teasing. If it does occur, everything immediately stops and it's dealt with in a group manner. 'Look what happened when you pushed so-and-so around.'"

Dealing with the problem in a group setting -- with bystanders around -- helps create empathy, and helps get rid of the good-guy, bad-guy mindset. The lesson is absorbed as part of the group identity. "It's not important who started it, who the instigator was," Hoffman says. "What's important is that something happened, and that has to be tolerated."

European schools have been most progressive in curbing bullying, and studies report up to 50% reductions in reported bullying, say Spivak and Prothrow-Stith. In these interventions, students are schooled in social skills; counseling services have been set up for both bullies and those being bullied. Clear rules and consequences of bullying are outlined, and parents are expected to increase their supervision of children's behavior.

Such strategies are encouraging, more humane, and more appropriate for kids than punitive measures used in U.S. schools today, they say. "Currently a tendency exists to blame children for problem behaviors rather than trying to understand what may be underlying their behavior," they write.

The Bully Pulpit

Fassler's advice to parents of kids being bullied:

  • Create an open atmosphere at home. "Talk to your child about what's going on. Create an open and honest environment in which your child trusts you, in which he knows that if he is having a problem, he can come to you," says Fassler.
  • Figure out a game plan. If your child is being bullied, find out what he or she has tried to stop the bullying, what's worked, what's not worked. "Parents can help their child practice what they'll do or say next time they run into the bully at school," Fassler tells WebMD. "Sometimes, simply asking the bully to leave you alone is all it takes. If your child practices being assertive at home, he will have more confidence."
  • Encourage your child to be with friends when going to and from school, while shopping. "Bullies tend to pick on kids who are isolated; they are less likely pick on a child in a group," Fassler tells WebMD.
  • If there's still trouble, get the school involved - go to the child's teacher or counselor.
  • Get kids involved in after-school activities. Provide good role models for them at an early age. Establish peer mediation and anger management programs.
  • Look for signs that the problem may be serious. "Kids who are bullied can get depressed, become reluctant to go to school," Fassler says. "If you notice significant emotional and behavioral changes in your child, if his grades are dropping, he has trouble sleeping, has lost his appetite, seems to be anxious or withdrawn, you should get it checked out by your pediatrician or family doctor. If there is a problem, ask for a referral to a mental health professional who has experience with children."
  • Ultimately, don't let the problem fester too long. "The longer the bullying lasts, the greater risk of long-term consequences are," Fassler tells WebMD.

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