One afternoon last spring, a Springfield sixth-grader returned home from school and hung himself.
He had enrolled in a new charter school that year, leaving behind most of his former classmates, and had been the target of constant bullying, taunting, and harassment by his new peers. His mother had even phoned the school to complain several times, but to no avail.
It’s not an isolated story. According to Dr. Barry Sarvet, chief of Child Psychiatry for Baystate Health, although schools and health professionals are more aware than ever of the effects of bullying, tragedies like this one still happen — not just suicides, but kids sustaining long-term psychological damage from feeling like a victim every time they walk into school.
“I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest it’s more prevalent than it was before; we’re just more aware now of how damaging it is to kids,” Sarvet said. “We’re learned more about the victims of bullying, and we have a lot more concern about kids who become violent in school. There’s a lot of attention being given to kids’ experiences during childhood, particularly in school, and how formative that is in their lives. I think that’s a factor in how much more sensitive we need to be — and are becoming.”
Maria Maloney, clinical director of Child and Adolescent Services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, said teachers are trying hard to educate children, but at some schools, an overwhelming number of students have problems, and it’s difficult not to let any fall through the cracks. Combine that with the often-violent and angry media messages kids encounter at an early age today, and it’s a recipe for trouble.
“In today’s culture, there’s a lot more exposure to violence and negativity and all these terrible things kids learn about,” Maloney said. “We have middle-schoolers feeling sexually harassed at school; kids are learning that behavior.”
In short, childhood and adolescence can be a minefield, especially for those who are singled out for harassment at school.
But as The Healthcare News learned, the kids who are tormented aren’t the only victims when bullies take over the playground.
The effects of long-term bullying on a child are often obvious, noted Dr. John Fanton, staff psychiatrist for Baystate Behavioral Health Child Psychiatry.
“Bullying damages a child’s sense of themselves,” he said. “A child whose self-esteem is affected may start to believe what other children say is true, and begin to self-bully with thoughts of being weak, ugly, or worthless, which can lead to self-loathing and feeling hopeless.”
However, “it’s not good for the bully, either,” Maloney said. “In time, all relationships can become about power, control, and violence, and unfortunately that leads to some pathological interactions. If you’re a bully all your life and a bully as an adult, if your primary way of interacting with people is who has more power and control, you can have lots of difficulty in relationships.”
That’s why it’s important that schools not only act quickly to stop bullying, but also work to prevent it in the future by understanding that bullies are often dealing with their own sets of issues — and by creating an environment that reduces opportunities for bullying.
“Some school systems have more bullying than in the past, and the fact is, there aren’t as many grownups paying attention, trying to structure kids’ experiences,” Sarvet said. “And I think that often, there’s a natural tendency for kids to prey on each other in unstructured situations.”
And too often, he continued, schools that do come down hard on bullies do so without investigating why the tormenter is behaving aggressively, which doesn’t solve the underlying problems.
“A lot of schools that address bullying with zero tolerance punish the bullies and lose them with a witch hunt,” he explained. “But bullies often have problems they bring to school, and they’re victims, too. A lot of times kids have stresses at home, and they take it out on other kids. Schools need to say bullying is unacceptable, but when someone is bullying someone else, it also helps to have a compassionate approach with those kids and find out what’s bothering them.
“Labeling a kid a troublemaker often leads them to be excluded, and that identification can often make them feel like they truly are bad people,” he continued. “That can lead to negative behavior and patterns of delinquency. The stress can lead to antisocial behavior, which can lead to disciplinary problems and even the criminal justice system or involvement in drugs.”
Sarvet conceded that most schools are doing the best they can most of the time, but they’re operating under enormous limitations in terms of funding and support services, and some deal with problems more constructively than others.
“There are some school systems that have figured out that the bully is a child who has needs as well,” he said. “Some schools have the old-fashioned and less-effective response of a purely disciplinary approach. You do have to set limits, but also try to understand the different causes of a bully’s behavior, to help both the victims and the perpetrator.”
But there’s a third type of victim as well, Sarvet and Maloney both noted, and that’s each bystander who witnesses the bully’s actions.
Maloney said that simply watching someone be bullied can cause feelings of anxiety and guilt that children and teenagers shouldn’t have to deal with at school, but many tolerate it out of a sense of relief that it’s not them being directly abused.
Although it can be difficult — it’s easier for teenagers to follow the crowd, put their heads down, and preserve their own safety — Sarvet said schools need to promote and have students buy into a culture where bullying is not accepted.
“It wouldn’t be happening if it was not tolerated by witnesses,” he noted. “And there’s emerging evidence about the harmful effects of witnessing bullying; kids feel helpless watching someone get hurt, and then feel guilty about not doing anything about it.”
Safe at Home?
One problem with bullying in the 21st century is that it’s much more difficult to isolate it to schools and playgrounds. Thank communications technology for that, as the past decade has brought yet another threat in the form of ‘cyber bullying,’ a broad category that can include anything from harassing text messages to libelous comments on a Facebook page.
While psychological bullying has been around forever, what makes cyber bullying more troublesome is its pervasiveness, Maloney said. With the whole world online, harassment is harder to get away from, even after school.
“Kids can’t escape it,” she said. “You can’t just go home and be fine when you’re getting instant messages and texts; it never leaves you.”
Because of these increased psychological threats, in addition to old-fashioned schoolyard taunting and abuse, it’s more important than ever for parents to understand what’s going on in their kids’ lives, she explained.
“Parents have to be really sensitive to when their kid is being bullied, talking to their kids about their experiences at school,” she said. “They need to notice changes in their behavior, like if they suddenly don’t want to ride the bus to school, or when a kid who’s always healthy starts coming up with headaches and stomachaches and doesn’t want to go to school. When parents are tuned into these changes in behavior, it can be helpful.”
The key, Maloney said, is for parents to maintain a close, open relationship with their children, in order to better recognize those changes.
“I know everyone is busy, but talk to your kids,” she said. “Have dinner together at least three or four times a week. If you have open lines of communication, they’re more likely to tell you when something is wrong. If you approach them for the first time when they’re having a problem, it’s harder than if they have a strong relationship with you.”
Keeping those lines open will also make it easier for bullied kids to seek comfort and constructive advice from mom and dad.
“Reminding their child of their positive qualities and behaviors is always a great place to start, such as ‘I’m proud of you being able to tell me about this difficulty. I know it may not be easy to talk about,’” Fanton said. “Be weary of telling your child to fight back. Nowadays, children will retaliate with weapons instead of settling their disagreements the old-fashioned way with a fistfight in the school yard. You want them to learn to be assertive, not vindictive.”
Importantly, he added, “if there is any concern that your child isn’t getting better or is harboring revengeful thoughts, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s pediatrician, who can refer them to a mental-health specialist.”
In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers several coping tips for young people who are being bullied:
- Tell the child not to react to the bully by giving into demands. Bullies like nothing more than to get a reaction such as crying. Ignoring bullying when it starts sends the message, ‘it won’t work on me.’
- If the child’s attempts to disregard the bully aren’t effective, they should become assertive with their harasser and make a statement such as, “I will talk to you, but I am not going to fight. So put your fists down now.”
- Encourage the child to form strong friendships. If they have loyal friends, they are less likely to be singled out, and they will have allies if they become a target of harassment.
- Talk to the child’s teacher or principal at school if the situation persists.
Maloney goes further than that when addressing teenage bullying that becomes physical.
“If a kid is older, in middle school or high school, and the kid’s being bullied and violence is involved, call the police,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t be beat up or injured. When violence or dangerous things are happening, call the police. You’re not doing anyone any favors by not holding them accountable.”
As too many parents have discovered, the alternative can be tragic.