The outbreak of school shootings brought to light another form of teen-on-teen violence that has been allowed to go virtually unchecked: bullying. It turns out that many of these adolescent gunmen had been ostracized or actively bullied by their fellow students for much of their young lives. The killings awakened adults’ sensitivity to the torment that many kids are subjected to at the hands of their peers and the possible measures children may take if they are in deep emotional pain (for whatever reason) and have access to firearms.
According to one 1999 survey of a midwestern junior high school, four in five students admitted to some form of bullying behavior at least once a month, ranging from name-calling, to verbal threats, to physical violence. Another 1999 study, of children aged fourteen to sixteen, found that schoolyard bullies were prone to psychological problems such as depression and thoughts of suicide, just like the kids they pick on. As many as half also find themselves on the receiving end of taunts from other children.
What You Can Do
The first step is for adults to dispense with the conventional wisdom that teasing is a harmless ritual of youth. Mild teasing may be harmless, but ridicule should not be tolerated. Let’s teach our children that it is wrong to hurt other people’s feelings. Ask them to remember an incident where someone made fun of them and how it made them feel.
Encourage youngsters to defend those who get picked on. If more bystanders had the courage to intervene (“Why don’t you leave him alone? No one thinks this is ‘cool.’ ”), most tormenters would probably slink off down the hallway, their deflated ego dragging behind them. At the very least, the right thing to do is to inform a teacher of the harassment and let him or her deal with the matter.
Look for the silent signs that a teenager is being bullied. A youngster may be too embarrassed to admit to Mom and Dad that someone is badgering him. Among the behaviors that often indicate a problem are a sudden lack of interest in school; a drop in grades; not wanting to go to school; and morning-time complaints of psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches. Unexplained bruises and other physical injuries should also nab a parent’s attention. These symptoms are important, because they may also indicate depression or other significant problems.
If you suspect that your teen is being victimized, coach him on how to assert himself without resorting to violence. Anytime a confrontation seems potentially dangerous, he should walk away and alert a school official.
What if the bullying continues? Let’s say that a sophomore boy repeatedly makes pig grunts and assorted hurtful comments to an overweight girl whenever she walks into homeroom. The situation should be brought to the administrative office’s attention right away. The girl’s mother and father can offer to either contact the principal or advise their daughter on how to handle the situation herself if their involvement would make her uncomfortable. Always give youngsters that option.
The National Parent-Teacher Association recommends that victims of bullying (or their parents) keep written records of each incident, including names, date, time, place and circumstances. Then submit a copy of the report to the principal.
Sometimes merely separating the two adversaries puts an end to the matter. Perhaps the boy in the above example is transferred to another homeroom. He and the girl rarely cross paths for the rest of the term. By their junior year, he’s matured and is no longer given to making cruel remarks. More severe measures include suspension and expulsion.
A number of schools have instituted counseling programs intended to help antisocial students control their anger and learn to resolve conflicts peacefully. The four most popular approaches are peer mediation, process curriculum, peaceable classroom and peaceable school.
If your attempts to get the school to take action fail, keep your teenager home while you pursue a hearing with the school board addressing his safety. Yes, this is a drastic step, but it may be necessary to force school administrators to understand the seriousness of the situation. Some parents have had to resort to legal measures in order to protect their youngster from being victimized, although usually these problems are resolved long before anyone is considering litigation.
Finally, throughout this process, explain to your teenager that she has done nothing wrong; it’s the other person who is at fault. Give her your patience and full support. Her self-esteem could probably use a boost, so remind her how terrific she is in so many ways.