Bullying Can Happen Anywhere, but Home Is Often First Line of Defense

Bullying can on- or offline, and parents are often the first line of defense.

September 1, 2010, 12:03 PM

Sept. 1, 2010 -- Modern-day bullying can happen anywhere -- at school, at the mall or on a playground or at home. It can take place over a computer or a cell phone, within large or small groups.

Bullying is particularly prevalent among elementary and high school students, and as 55 million students return to classrooms this month, the effects from several terrorizing bullying incidents during the past school year continue to reverberate.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 26 percent of 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds come up against bullying -- either as victims or as bullies. When passive bystanders are included in the numbers, 77 percent of third-graders fall into the "bully circle."

How can parents know if their child is a bully, and what can they do to prevent it?

"I think the real challenge is bringing adults up to speed that this is not an acceptable set of behaviors. This is not just kids being kids. This is not a rite of passage," explained Dr. Joseph Wright, a professor and vice chairman of pediatrics at George Washington School of Medicine, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The academy urges parents and caretakers to monitor their children for impulsive behavior, aggressive attitudes and lack of empathy toward siblings, which are the classic signs of bullying tendencies.

Cyberbullying, said Wright, has created an atmosphere in which bullies can remain anonymous as they attack through texting and social media sites.

Parents Can Do A Lot to Head Off Bullying

"Parents need to be really hyper vigilant here. They need not to hesitate about intervening and being aware of who their children communicate with online," Wright said.

Unfortunately, experts said, the signs of bullying are often not so obvious.

In Massachusetts, the state's Education Department has pushed local schools to develop anti-bullying policies by the end of the school year. The new mandate is the result of a new state law inspired in part by the death of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley high school student who hung herself after weeks of nonstop bullying that some said school authorities knew about but ignored.

Nine Massachusetts students now face criminal harassment charges in connection with her death.

Michael Brewer of Florida suffered burns over two-thirds of his body after three classmates doused him with alcohol and set him on fire after hassling him for $40 they said he owed them for a DVD.

"I've felt what it feels like to get burned, bullied, picked on," said Brewer in a recent interview. "So I want that to stop for every kid in school who's being picked on, jumped, bullied."

Three of Michael Brewer's former classmates have been charged with attempted murder, and will be tried as adults.

At a bully prevention summit in Washington, D.C., this summer, students and school officials brainstormed to find solutions.

"A lot of students try to tell their parents or a teacher, and they aren't heard," said student Maggie Silliman, who begins her senior year this fall.

School administrators also discussed new anti-bully laws recently passed in Massachusetts and New York. Forty-one other states have similar laws.

Laws, however, can only do so much, and experts maintain the most effective arsenal against bullying may lie at home.

Wright suggested limiting children's access to technology in the house, and monitoring their use of it. He said parents should place home computers in a public area. He also advised that parents check a child's text messages periodically, and not worry too much about invading a child's privacy.

"I think we cannot stress enough the potential impact of this behavior on the outcomes for young people," said Wright.

When they suspect bullying, parents then need to take action. Experts advise parents to confront their children. Ask whether the child recognizes the behavior as bullying. Next, speak with the child's counselor and devise a school and home approach to combat the behavior. Finally, talk to your pediatrician to try to diagnose the reason behind the child's bullying behavior.

The stakes are high to anything less.

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