Bullying in Schools

What parents and kids need to know

Bullies. Kids in every school know who they are: Those who use force—physical or verbal violence—to repeatedly harm someone else. The National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Justice estimate that 160,000 children miss school each day to avoid attacks or threats from fellow students. Bullying is one of the most common forms of violence in schools. Moreover, the depression and anxiety experienced by kids who are targets of bullying can extend into adulthood.

Parents should determine whether their child is a target of bullying. One sign is if the child becomes reluctant to attend or even talk about school, according to psychotherapist William Voors, author of The Parent's Book About Bullying: Changing the Course of Your Child's Life. Kids who are targets may refuse to walk to and from school or to use the cafeteria or playground. Their academic performance may suffer. They may come home with torn clothes or complain of headaches, stomachaches or trouble sleeping.

The following techniques may help the targets of bullying prevent or defuse bullying situations:
  • Kids who bully like to get a reaction. Act as if the bullying doesn't bother you. Talk to someone else nearby, as if the bullying child isn't even there.
  • Avoid the bully. Try not to be alone in potentially dangerous places, such as locker rooms, restrooms or empty classrooms. Take a different route home.
  • Ask an adult for help if you're in physical danger.
  • Walk or run away from a dangerous situation and then look for help. If you think you may be harmed and can't get away, yell for help.

Parents whose children may be targets should encourage their kids to enhance friendship-making skills, emphasizes Voors, because bullies tend to seek out those who are socially isolated. Encouraging a child to act confidently can be beneficial. Children can practice standing up tall with shoulders back and walking at a relaxed pace. But if bullying continues despite your efforts and there's a threat of serious physical or emotional harm, parents should contact the school, says Voors.

"Bullying is not just 'kids play' but a series of behaviors that need to be taken seriously and stopped immediately," says Lyle Helke, health educator and prevention specialist in the White Bear Lake, Minn., school district. Helke's work encourages positive behavioral choices in students. "I want parents to know that sometimes they may need to intervene and help if their child's attempt to stop the behavior is unsuccessful."

Ironically, perhaps no one feels as bad as the students who do the bullying: "Many of these girls and boys tend to be angrier, more depressed, more impulsive, and more likely to feel that they don't belong at school," notes Voors. "Many children who bully are clinically depressed but often do not receive treatment for their depression."

A child who bullies may show the following behaviors:
  • Doesn't care about hurting others' feelings.
  • Shows disrespect for the opposite sex and people of different backgrounds.
  • Enjoys fighting; lies frequently.
  • Deliberately hurts pets or other animals.
  • Uses anger to get what he or she wants.

It's critical to help children discontinue bullying behaviors when they are young, because they are at risk for serious lifelong problems with relationships, careers and the legal system. "Children who are identified in the second grade as instigators of bullying are six times more likely than those who don't bully to be convicted of a crime by age 24, and five times more likely to have a serious criminal record by age 30," says Voors.

To teach a child to care about other kids' feelings, Voors recommends that parents:
  • Ask your child how he or she feels and respect those feelings.
  • Give your child unconditional love.
  • Focus on similarities between your child and others.
  • Show kindness to others; refuse to laugh at jokes that are cruel.
  • Use respectful, nonphysical discipline.
  • Teach your child to handle anger appropriately.

It's important that parents of bullies not be discouraged, says Voors, because they are in the best position to teach their child healthy behaviors.

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