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Beware of Bullying

Most of us recall a time during our childhood when we were poked fun of or witnessed another child being picked on by someone.

You may have been bullied or a bystander to bullying, depending on the circumstances and whether these incidents happened repeatedly over a prolonged period of time.

Bullying is different from an occasional conflict, according to Suzanne Keeley, Ph.D. [1], a Baptist Health-affiliated psychologist and president emeritus of The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment [2], a Miami-based non-profit organization dedicated to preventing violence.

“In conflict, both parties disagree about something, but there’s no imbalance of power,” she said.  “In a bullying situation, the child who is bullying has power over the victimized child and increases that power with each bullying incident.”

Talk to Your Child
Dr. Keeley suggests that parents get ahead of any problem by speaking to their children early on about bullying.

“As soon as kids begin to interact with other children in playgroups or at school, parents should let their children know what behavior is acceptable, using age-appropriate vocabulary so they can understand” she said.

A preschooler should be taught, for example, that hitting hurts others.  A school-age child should understand that laughing, poking fun of or isolating other students is not nice. Parents of middle school students should remind their children that pointing out others’ flaws can be embarrassing and hurtful, and older teens should learn from their parents that online insults threaten other’s well-being and sense of security.

Dr. Keeley says early and frequent conversations about bullying prepare a child how to react if he or she becomes victimized by bullying or witnesses a bullying incident with another child.  And she recommends empowering children and teens to take action against the bullying by speaking up immediately or telling a trusted adult as soon as possible.

She also recommends that parents pay close attention to their own behaviors.

“Parents are the most powerful adults in children’s lives,” she said.  “When they model respectful language, compassion and empathy, they are teaching children to treat others as they would like to be treated.”

Encourage Being an ‘Upstander’
The Melissa Institute teaches students to be “upstanders” rather than bystanders to bullying.  Students learn that by standing up to bullying on behalf of another child, they may help the victim.  Upstanders can help by telling the  bullying child to leave another child alone, getting the child away from the bullying incident or by getting an adult to intervene.

“Through our research at The Melissa Institute, we’ve learned that in 57 percent of cases where a bullying bystander, or witness to the incident, stands up on behalf of the victimized student, the bullying stops within 10 seconds,” Dr. Keeley said.

Signs of Victimization
Anyone can be bullied, so it’s important to look for signs that bullying may be taking place.  The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ [3] points to these red flags:
•    Unexplained injuries.
•    Changes in eating habits, including coming home from school hungry.
•    Complaints of stomachaches, headaches or illnesses and a desire to stay home from school.
•    Loss of interest in school and declining grades.
•    Sleep problems, including nightmares.
•    Diminished self esteem.
•    Loss of friends.
•    Self-destructive behavior and thoughts of suicide.

Seek Intervention for Your Child
If bullying is suspected or confirmed by the child, Dr. Keeley advises parents to have an open conversation with their child about what has happened.   For parents who are unsure of how to talk to their children about bullying, the American Psychological Association offers several books [4]with age-appropriate instructive stories that can help, especially with younger children.  These books and stories can be used by parents to begin conversations about bullying and offer tips to kids about how to handle bullying situations.  Dr. Keeley recommends parents also take the following steps to help their child:

•    Commend the child for coming forward, even if you had to prompt the conversation.
•    Speak to the child’s teacher, counselor and principal about what has happened.
•    Educate yourself about school policies related to bullying.
•    Provide tips to your child for dealing with the student who is bullying.  The Melissa Institute provides parents, counselors, teachers and students with strategies for coping with bullying.

“While bullying affects so many in our community – from children, to families, to educators – increased awareness and education goes a long way in curbing this problem,” Dr. Keeley said.  “If you don’t get immediate resolution to a bullying problem, work your way up until you move the mountain.  It takes a village to help these kids and we all have a responsibility to do so.”