Jun. 4th, 2013 12:24 pm
Parents and Educators Should Always Intervene When a Child is Bullied, and Here’s How

By Elizabeth Johnson Lee, LMFT

Bullying is defined as being intentional, being verbal or physical and involving an imbalance of power.
Boys are more likely than girls to use physical aggression. Girls, who are expected to be “nice”, resort to “relational aggression” including teasing, exclusion, spreading rumors, cyberbullying and all other nonphysical kinds of meanness. Aggressors choose victims who are smaller, less popular or otherwise less powerful than they are.
3.7 million kids bully every year, and over 3.2 million are bullied, resulting in running away from home, 160,000 class cuts, 10% of school dropouts and 30% of all child suicides every year. Bullying can cause life long psychological damage and lead to loneliness, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress and eating disorders.
Bullying is not necessarily “normal” childhood behavior. It is normal for toddlers to pee and poop their diapers, but they are potty trained. It is normal for kids to not know how to read and write, but they are taught. It is normal for kids to grab toys from other kids and cut in line, but they are taught to respect others and show common courtesy, or so we hope. When adults excuse bullying by saying things like “kids will be kids”, or “stick and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me”, kids miss out on teachable moments. Moments to learn how to show empathy for other people, to stand up for themselves and understand that, in the long run, they are more likely to get what they want from people when they are nice to them.
Just as adults can complain to their supervisors if they are harassed at work, or call the police if they are mugged on the street, kids, who are more vulnerable, need and deserve protection too. Yet 30% of teachers report seeing nothing wrong with bullying and so only intervene 4% of the time.
Signs of being bullied include bruises and torn clothes, missing money or possessions, an absence of or loss of friendships, somatic complaints, depression, aggressiveness and a personality change from that of a happy, confident child to one who is withdrawn and moody.
If you notice those signs, ask your child if they are being bullied. Listen to and empathize with them. Don’t overreact or under react. Ask what happened, when it started, and the duration. Discuss why, in a non-blaming way, they think it is happening. Share stories of when you were bullied, keeping in mind that to your child, their experience feels like the worst thing that ever happened to anyone. If the bullying is nonphysical, explain about relational aggression and, if your child is willing, empower them to tell their aggressor, in a confident way to stop. Discuss what they’ll say and role model it. Encourage them to respond to the bully without acting emotionally, which may be interpreted by them as weakness and fuel their feelings of power. Agree on an alternate plan in case plan A backfires.
If the bully is a child you see regularly, Plan B can be to speak to the aggressor your self. Approach them in a nonjudgmental way, state the problem and define the bad behavior. Tell them how their behavior affects your child and that it must stop. Ask for their side of the story and offer your help. Bullies see adults as more powerful and so are more likely to stop.
If the bullying happens at school, have you or your child talk to their teacher. If the teacher doesn’t get it to stop, write a letter to the principle and request that action be taken. You can also call the police, especially if the bullying is physical or your child was threatened with violence.
Don’t tell your child to ignore the bully or hit them back; those things only spur the bully on and could cause the situation to escalate. Don’t tell them to deal with it on their own; kids need to know they can confide in their parents whenever they feel overwhelmed with something they don’t feel they can cope with on their own. Don’t accuse your child of being hypersensitive; kids can tell the difference between fun joking and mean teasing. Don’t blame them for being bullied, and never have your child confront a physically violent bully alone; they could be seriously hurt.
Only talk to the bully’s parents if you already have a friendly relationship with them. If you are not close friends, take into account what the parents are like and talk to them only if you feel they can be trusted. If you talk to the parents, they will be more willing to help if they’re approached in a calm, nonjudgmental way. If you don’t think they will be helpful, have a third party contact them for you, such as the school or police.
If the bully is a friend of your child’s, don’t minimize the bullying; that invalidates their pain. Don’t tell them you no longer like their friend either or they may rebel by clinging to a friendship that is abusive. Just as adults can have abusive spouses or partners, kids can have abusive friends, or “frenemies”. Encourage them to make new friends, and find activities that take them out of the bully’s sphere of influence and that raise their confidence.

Elizabeth Johnson Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She is available for interviews nationwide and can be emailed at ejl@elizabethjohnsonlee.com, or visit her at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.
Academic Stress and Teen Suicide—One Woman’s Story

My cousin Alexandra attempted suicide.

Why? My family wondered. It was a shock, and childhood memories flashed through my mind of Alexandra and me running through the halls of our grandmother’s house, shrieking with laughter. On a ski trip with our families at Lake Tahoe, we chased each other with our hands held out, like claws, as we pretended to be monsters.

Since we grew up on opposite coasts we did not get to see each other often. It was not until six years ago, at a family reunion, where Alexandra and I sat alone on a beach in Maine that she told me her story.

There were three things that lead to her suicide attempt. The first was that she was skipped a grade. The other kids were older, bigger, and more mature, while she was young and impulsive.

The second was that she had severe nearsightedness that was not diagnosed until she was seven. “I could not read the blackboard,” she said.

The third was that she had undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder. “I’m easily distracted by things that fascinate me,” Alexandra said, adding that she has a different way of learning. “I see patterns in things, and in order to learn anything new I have to imagine it on a visual grid.”

Alexandra compensated for all those things with a combination of deception (she’d memorized the eye chart), a good memory (remember the eye chart?), and high intelligence.

Alexandra’s family moved often, so she attended five schools over a period of six years. Her parents divorced when she was twelve, and that’s when she was diagnosed with depression. Thinking that it would give her a sense of stability, her parents put her in a boarding school when she was thirteen.

“My family,” I began tentatively, “always wondered if you attempted suicide because you could not live up to your families’ expectations for being a high achiever. Was that why you tried to kill yourself?”

As she hugged her knees to her chest, she looked at me and nodded. “Exactly,” she said, “and I felt totally worthless because of it.”

She was 17 when she tried to kill herself. She was failing one of her classes. Everyone thought she had applied to universities, or had at least filled out the applications, but she hadn’t. “Since I was so smart everyone always expected me to excel, but I could not please my parents or teachers and I always felt guilty. It was assumed that I’d go to an Ivy League school. When you grow up hearing you can get a scholarship at Yale by having a legacy there through our great great grandfather, it’s hard to see any other options.”

The day she attempted suicide, her father and stepmother were on their way to see her. She knew how disappointed they’d be when they found out she had not prepared for college. She needed a solution. “I took handfuls of aspirin-based pain killers,” she said. “When someone is in the grip of suicidal impulses, they cannot imagine a time when they’ll feel better. No one can talk them out of it.” After writing a note, she left out special keepsakes for her family. Then she took off to die in peace.

Finding a place to lie down in some bushes under a nylon poncho, she noticed how the condensation caused by her breath created, on the poncho’s surface, a droplet of water. “Reflected, jewel-like, within the droplet,” she said, “was an upside-down, miniaturized image of the world I was about to leave. It looked so precious. It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to live on my own terms.”

Was it too late? She wondered. She lost bowel and motor control and vomited profusely. She had walked along a long, high, narrow wall to reach her spot. Could she make it back without falling? Progress was slow and painstaking, but, covered with leaves and excrement, but she made it back and got help.

Alexandra was taken to the hospital. The pills, it turned out, were non-lethal, but she hadn’t known that. Kitty, her stepmother, became a second mother to her. When Kitty visited Alexandra, Kitty told her, “We’ll care for you like a precious plum in our hand.”

“It was not until she told me that, “Alexandra said, ”that I started to recover.”

Some say that school stress doesn’t cause suicide, that statistics show otherwise. “Stop blaming the schools”, they say. Others say to stop blaming parents or peers. But ever since that afternoon on a beach in Maine, I don’t care what the statisticians say. They never met Alexandra. Yes, she had undiagnosed visual and learning disabilities, her parents had divorced, and she was depressed. Her family did the best they knew how by her. But if she had felt valued for the “precious plum” that she was, without feeling obligated to meet lofty academic standards that she could not meet, than maybe, just maybe, she would not have felt driven to attempt suicide.

I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 ½. Buy now on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+house+at+844+1%2F2. I live with my husband, two children, and our hyperactive poodle.



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