Conference Coverage

Clinic goes to bat for bullied kids


 

EXPERT ANALYSIS FROM AAP 2019

– After Massachusetts passed antibullying legislation in 2009, Peter C. Raffalli, MD, saw an opportunity to improve care for the increasing numbers of children presenting to his neurology practice at Boston Children’s Hospital who were victims of bullying – especially those with developmental disabilities.

girl getting bullied on cell phone omgimages/thinkstockphotos.com

“I had been thinking of a clinic to help kids with these issues, aside from just helping them deal with the fallout: the depression, anxiety, et cetera, that comes with being bullied,” Dr. Raffalli recalled at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “I wanted to do something to help present to families the evidence-based strategies regarding bullying prevention, detection, and intervention that might help to stop the bullying.”

This led him to launch the Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative (BACPAC) at Boston Children’s Hospital, which began in 2009 as an educational resource for families, medical colleagues, and schools. Dr. Raffalli also formed an alliance with the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University (Ann Neurol. 2016;79[2]:167-8).

Two years later in 2011, BACPAC became a formal clinic at Boston Children’s that serves as a subspecialty consult service for victims of bullying and their families. The clinic team consists of a child neurologist, a social worker, and an education resource specialist who meet with the bullying victim and his/her family in initial consultation for 90 minutes. The goal is to develop an evidence-based plan for bullying prevention, detection, and intervention that is individualized to the patient’s developmental and social needs.

“We tell families that bullying is recognized medically and legally as a form of abuse,” said Dr. Raffalli. “The medical and psychological consequences are similar to other forms of abuse. In the clinic, I explain to families that bullying is never the victim’s fault, and they should not blame themselves for the bullying. You’d be surprised how often patients do think the bullying is their fault.”

The extent of the problem

Researchers estimate that 25%-30% of children will experience some form of bullying between kindergarten and grade 12, and about 8% will engage in bullying themselves. When BACPAC began in 2009, Dr. Raffalli conducted an informal search of peer-reviewed literature on bullying in children with special needs; it yielded just four articles. “Since then, there’s been an exponential explosion of literature on various aspects of bullying,” he said. Now there is ample evidence in the peer-reviewed literature to show the increased risk for bullying/cyberbullying in children/teens, not just with neurodevelopmental disorders, but also for kids with other medical disorders such as obesity, asthma, and allergies.

“We’ve had a good number of kids over the years with peanut allergy who were literally threatened physically with peanut butter at school,” he said. “It’s incredible how callous some kids can be. Kids with oppositional defiant disorder, impulse control disorder, and callous/unemotional traits from a psychological standpoint are hardest to reach when it comes to getting them to stop bullying. You’d be surprised how frequently bullies use the phrase [to their victims], ‘You should kill yourself.’ They don’t realize the damage they’re doing to people. Bullying can lead to severe psychological but also long-term medical problems, including suicidal ideation.”

Published studies show that the highest incidences of bullying occur in children with neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, Tourette syndrome, and other learning disabilities (Eur J Spec Needs Ed. 2010;25[1]:77-91). This population of children is overrepresented in bullying “because the services they receive at school make their disabilities more visible,” explained Dr. Raffalli, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, Boston. “They stand out, and they have social information–processing deficits or distortions that exacerbate bullying involvement. They also have difficulty interpreting social cues or attributing hostile characteristics to their peer’s behavior.”

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