For decades, bullying has been viewed as an unpleasant but generally benign rite of passage that many children experience and overcome without significant consequences. Some high-profile examples of youth suicide coupled with several stunning research studies demonstrating major negative effects of bullying that rival the impact of things like child abuse and out-of-home placement on future physical and mental health, however, have caused many clinicians across specialties to stop and take notice (Lancet Psychiatry 2015;2:524-31). The result has been concerted antibullying efforts from varied sources including the federal government, such as stopbullying.gov, and many professional organizations. Pediatricians are in a prime position both to help individual children and families and to serve as community advocates against this significant public health concern.
Jeremy is an 11-year-old boy who has been followed by his pediatrician since birth. He has had few health concerns over the years other than some low levels of anxiety and being somewhat overweight. At an annual checkup, his mother reports that Jeremy has missed much more school this year, often making somewhat vague physical complaints. He also has told his mother that a couple of peers at school are particularly “mean” to him. He doesn’t elaborate and doesn’t want his parents to make “a big deal” about it for fear of causing further embarrassment at school.
At least moderate levels of bullying are estimated to occur in about 30% of school-age children, resulting in approximately160,000 lost days of school. Bullying behavior can include anything from name calling to outright physical assault. Online bullying in the form of texts, e-mails, and social media also is increasingly common. School grounds remain the most common site for bullying, and physical appearance is the most common target of bullying behavior. What is thought to separate bullying from other forms of peer conflict is that there exists some sort of power differential between the bully and the victim in terms of physical size, social status, or other features. Some interesting data also suggest some sex differences regarding bullying with boys being more likely to bully children outside of their core group of friends, and girls being more likely to bully individuals within the network of individuals with whom they typically interact.
A key element of helping bullied children involves getting them to talk about the experience with a parent, teacher, physician, or counselor. Some tips that can help get kids to talk include reassurance that the child has control over what will happen with the information (within legal limits) and that no action will be taken without their knowledge and agreement, and having adults relate stories about their own past experience with bullying. Pediatricians also may want to consider opening up the conversation more broadly by asking if bullying is a problem “at your school” rather than in a particular child’s life.
In making an appropriate intervention, parents and physicians may want to differentiate lower levels of bullying (name calling, teasing) from higher levels (overt threats, physical violence, and intimidation), keeping in mind that all forms can be potentially harmful.
For lower-level bullying, the following tips can be helpful to keep in mind in working with kids directly and in helping parents help their children:
1. Don’t underestimate the power of sympathetic listening. Overt expressions to a child that he or she doesn’t deserve this, and that such behaviors are really hurtful can be very important to many kids. Positive experiences with friends and families also can go a long way to counteract a negative encounter with a bully.
2. Coach bully victims about how to respond. The old adage of telling a bully that he or she is hurting your feelings has been replaced with advice to react emotionally as little as possible. Some children also can be helped by rehearsing specific responses or learning to join groups during higher-risk activities.
3. If the bullying is occurring online, encourage kids to save the texts or social media posts if needed as evidence.
4. Consider the option of an anonymous report to a school principal or guidance counselor. While school personnel will be unable to make a direct response, they might be able, for example, to provide more monitoring in high-risk areas such as bathrooms, school buses, or locker rooms.
For higher levels of bullying, it often is important to have more direct involvement with school staff or even the police. Many states now have mandatory bullying prevention and intervention policies. While parents of bullying victims may have strong and natural urges to confront directly the parents of the alleged bully, this step often does not help the situation and often can makes things worse.