Bullying: What Works--and Why Parents Must Act

Sometimes a teen or child who has been bullied eventually becomes the bully as a way to retaliate. In fact, revenge for bullying is one of the strongest motivations for school shootings. (AP Photo)

by Rima Himelstein, M.D.

Bullying. It has happened to many of my patients; maybe it’s happened to your child, too. When it happens to celebrities like actor Kate Winslet, who was called “Blubber” and locked in an art-room closet, or former President Bill Clinton, who was called a “fat band boy” and hit in the jaw ... then it starts to gain more attention.Comedian Chris Rock is another star who was bullied in school, and he knows that bullying is no laughing matter.  It is such a serious problem that October has been named National Bullying Prevention Month.

It’s about power or, rather, the imbalance of power. Bullying is a form of youth violence in which there is an imbalance of power with one child or group of children causing harm, fear, or distress in another child through repeated attacks. Bullying may take various forms:    

  • Physical, including hitting, punching and kicking
  • Verbal, including teasing, name-calling or racial slurs
  • Cyberbullying, including harassing e-mails, text messages, or internet posts

Sadly, bullying is as much a part of school for many children as is reading, writing, and arithmetic. Three numbers you should know:

Bullying usually starts in elementary school and peaks in middle school; it also occurs in high school. Here’s the typical scenario: bullies begin the school year by targeting and “testing” a number of smaller, weaker children. Those who respond by showing fear, crying, or giving in to the bullies’ demands are repeatedly bullied.  

Some people who become bullies may:

  • Witness physical and verbal violence or aggression at home 
  • Have trouble following rules
  • Show little concern for the feelings of others

Victims of bullying are more likely to be:

  • Very sensitive
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Lacking in confidence

Bullying may have lasting negative effects  . Many parents don't think that bullying is as big a problem as bringing a weapon to school or drug use, but they’re wrong. 

Bullies are at increased risk for:

  • Mental health problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Criminal behavior

Victims are at increased risk for:

  • Poor school adjustment
  • Mental health problems
  • Suicide ("bullycide" is a victim's suicide that occurs due to extreme bullying)

Children who have been both bullies and victims (“bully-victims”) suffer the most serious consequences. Sometimes a teen or child who has been bullied eventually becomes the bully as a way to retaliate. In fact, revenge for bullying is one of the strongest motivations for school shootings.

How can parents help? If your child is being bullied, do something.  I favor this approach:

  • Talk to your child's teacher—don’t confront the bully's parents.  Consider talking to the principal, too.
  • Practice with your child how to act confidently: walk upright, look people in the eye, and speak clearly.
  • Discuss nonviolent alternatives to deal with bullies: play with friends or walk away; if no success, tell an adult.
  • Involve your child in activities outside school—maybe a sport; he or she can make new friends and build confidence and self-esteem.

The ultimate goal is to stop bullying before it ever starts. To achieve this goal, children must understand the difference between bullying and friendly teasing or “horsing around”; they need to understand that bullying is never okay.

The children who bully need our help, too. They need counseling. It can help them understand why they act as they do and it can teach them how to interact with others in more positive ways. Family counseling is essential, too.

Watch a video ... and while you’re at it, make a video.  Yes, I am a pediatrician recommending screen time!

  • for pre-teens ...
  • for teens ...
  • by other teens ... The organization, We Stop Hate, was started by a 16-year-old girl who was a victim of bullying, and features videos created by teens for teens.
  • by your teen ... The Stop Bullying Video Challenge will award cash prizes for the best teen-made videos. 

Is your child a bully ... or the victim of bullying? Share your story with us.

Rima Himelstein, M.D., is a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist.