I read the article, “What family physicians can do to combat bullying” (J Fam Pract. 2017;66:82-89) and Dr. Hickner’s editorial, “It’s time to screen for bullying” (J Fam Pract. 2017;66:66) with great interest. I’m a bullying prevention researcher and the creator of a new bullying prevention program, CirclePoint, which is being piloted in Boston Public Schools. I’m also a featured speaker on bullying in the Massachusetts General Hospital’s life skills after-school program that runs in a dozen area schools.
My work in schools has taught me that as important as it is to identify bullying problems, it is equally important for doctors to know how to counsel patients and caregivers on how to resolve these problems.
Identifying bullying without providing further guidance can actually do more harm than good, both to the child’s health and to the child-physician relationship.
Children often don’t tell adults they are being bullied because the actions that adults take—while well-intended—can sometimes make the situation worse. Further, some caregivers may actually blame the child for being bullied. And a doctor who simply identifies the problem and leaves the next steps to an ill-informed caregiver may lose the patient’s trust.
Also worth noting: Some children who are bullied may not have a clear understanding of what the term “bullying” means. I strongly suggest asking patients about how others are treating them and if anyone is making them upset. Questions about behaviors and feelings are more effective at identifying a bullying problem than questions that use the term “bullying.”
Our program has a free resource that was developed for educators, but can easily be used by physicians to counsel patients and caregivers. It’s designed to convey recommended actions for both the student and caregiver in a matter of minutes.
Doctors who identify a bullying problem bear a responsibility to counsel both the patient and caregiver(s) on what bullying is, why it happens, and, most critically, recommended actions to take to effectively resolve the problem.