Sue Scheff: Bullying and the fear of going to school

During this STOMPOUTBULYING Awareness week, we need to recognize that some kids and teens are afraid to attend school. Bullying can be harsh and cause emotional harm to your kids. As a parent, we need to take steps to learn more about bullying and how it affects our children. Is your child the bully? Be proactive and get involved. Don't allow kids to hurt others with malicious words. Stick and stones will hurt you, and so will words.

Scared to go to School

“We know that there’s a sense that kids have, that frequently when somebody does engage in bullying nothing happens. That’s sometimes because it’s viewed as, ‘this is just what kids do’ or it’s just not recognized as bullying or something out of the ordinary that should not be accepted.”
– Joel Meyers, Ph.D, psychologist

A new national poll on children’s health finds that only a quarter of American parents would give their child’s school an “A” in preventing bullying and school violence. In fact, every day in America thousands of kids miss school because they’re afraid of being bullied or harassed.

Andre Johnson remembers some of the verbal harassment he dealt with at school. “You faggot, you got a little sugar in your tank, sissy,” were just some of the names he was called.

“There would be times when I just wouldn’t go to class,” he says.

Every day, thousands of kids like Andre are afraid to go to school for similar reasons.

Experts say one of the biggest problems is that some adults and children still view bullying as normal teenage behavior.

“We know that there’s a sense that kids have, that frequently when somebody does engage in bullying nothing happens,” explains psychologist Joel Meyers. “That’s sometimes because it’s viewed as, ‘this is just what kids do’ or it’s just not recognized as bullying or something out of the ordinary that should not be accepted.”

He says schools need to have clear and accurate policies on bullying, confidential ways to report harassment, a safe haven within the school. “But more importantly,” says Meyers, “I think you need to have mechanisms in place where teachers learn what bullying is, so they know how to identify it, so they know how to respond, so they don’t think, ‘oh, that’s just kids, that’s just what kids do’.”

And, experts say, parents shouldn’t underestimate their power within the school.

“Parents have got to realize that it’s just not the schools that can do this,” explains Vermont state representative Peter Hunt. “The schools receive these kids. The schools really have to have the parents’ support.”

Some educators say parents, teachers, and children should all fight for a kind of “zero tolerance” for bullying.

“If zero tolerance means that whenever a child engages in bullying behavior that there are natural and meaningful consequences to those negative behaviors, if that’s what’s meant by zero tolerance, then that makes sense,” explains Meyers.

With support from his mother and friends, Andre was able to overcome the harassment and, best of all, accept himself. “It was like around my junior year when I started not to care anymore,” he says, “and I was like, ‘okay, I don’t care anymore - who knows, who don’t knows, whatever. You like it, you don’t like it, so what. It’s me, not you.”

Tips for Parents

Who is likely to be a victim of bullying? The National Resource Center for Safe Schools says that passive loners are the most frequent victims, especially if they cry easily or lack social self-defense skills. Many victims are unable to deflect a conflict with humor and don’t think quickly on their feet. They are usually anxious, insecure and cautious and suffer from low self-esteem. In addition, they rarely defend themselves or retaliate and tend to lack friends, making them easy to isolate.

If you suspect that your child is being bullied, you can help him or her in the following ways cited by the Committee for Children:

■Encourage your child to report bullying incidents to you. Validate your child’s feelings by letting him or her know that it is normal to feel hurt, sad, scared, angry, etc. Help your child be specific in describing bullying incidents – who, what, where and when.
■Ask your child how he or she has tried to stop the bullying. Coach him or her in possible coping methods – avoidance of the bully and making new friends for support.
■Treat the school as your ally. Share your child’s concerns and specific information around bullying incidents with appropriate school personnel. Work with school staff to protect your child from possible retaliation. Establish a plan with the school and your child for dealing with future bullying incidents. Volunteer time to help supervise on field trips, on the playground or in the lunchroom. And become an advocate for school-wide bullying prevention programs and policies.
■Encourage your child to continue to talk with you about all bullying incidents. Never ignore your child’s report. Remember that you should not advise your child to physically fight back. Bullying lasts longer and becomes more severe when children fight back, and physical injuries often result. Also, you should not confront the bullying child or his or her parents.
Unlike victims, bullies appear to suffer little anxiety and possess strong self-esteem, according to the National Resource Center for Safe Schools. They often come from homes where physical punishment is used and where children are taught to strike back physically as a way of handling problems. Bullies thus believe that it is all right for stronger children to hit weaker children. They frequently lack parental warmth and involvement and seem to desire power and control.

If you suspect that your child is bullying others, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) suggests you seek help for him or her as soon as possible. Without intervention, bullying can lead to serious academic, social, emotional and legal difficulties. Talk to your child’s pediatrician, teacher, principal, school counselor or family physician. If the bullying continues, the AACAP advises you to arrange a comprehensive evaluation of your child by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other mental health professional should be arranged.

The Coalition for Children says that you can also help your child by discussing with him or her these key points about bullying:

■Remind your child that bullying is not acceptable in your family or in society.
■Provide your child with alternatives to taking frustration or aggression out on others. You can even role-play different ways to behave in situations where your child would normally bully another.
■Specify concretely the consequences if the aggression or bullying continue.

While bullying, harassment and teasing are unfortunate aspects of childhood, you can help minimize these occurrences by raising non-violent children. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites the following tips for curbing hurtful behavior in your child:

■Give your child consistent love and attention. Every child needs a strong, loving, relationship with a parent or other adult to feel safe and secure and to develop a sense of trust. Without a steady bond to a caring adult, a child is at risk for becoming hostile, difficult and hard to manage.
■Make sure your child is supervised. A child depends on his or her parents and family members for encouragement, protection and support as he or she learns to think for himself or herself. Without proper supervision, your child will not receive the guidance he or she needs. Studies report that unsupervised children often have behavior problems.
■Show your child appropriate behaviors by the way you act. Children often learn by example. The behavior, values and attitudes of parents and siblings have a strong influence on them. Most children sometimes act aggressively and may hit another person. Be firm with your child about the possible dangers of violent behavior. Also remember to praise your child when he or she solves problems constructively without violence.
■Don’t hit your child. Hitting or slapping your child as punishment shows him or her that it’s OK to hit others to solve problems and can train him or her to punish others in the same way he or she were punished.
■Be consistent about rules and discipline. When you make a rule, stick to it. Your child needs structure with clear expectations for his or her behavior. Setting rules and then not enforcing them is confusing and sets up your child to “see what he or she can get away with.”
■Make sure your child does not have access to guns. Guns and children can be a deadly combination. Teach your child about the dangers of firearms or other weapons if you own and use them. If you keep a gun in your home, unload it and lock it up separately from the bullets. Don’t carry a gun or a weapon. If you do, this tells your child that using guns solves problems.
■Try to keep your child from seeing violence in the home or community. Violence in the home can be frightening and harmful to children. A child who has seen violence at home does not always become violent, but he or she may be more likely to try to resolve conflicts with violence.
■Try to keep your child from seeing too much violence in the media. Watching a lot of violence on television, in the movies and in video games can lead children to behave aggressively. As a parent, you can control the amount of violence your child sees in the media by limiting television viewing and previewing games, movies, etc., before allowing access to them by your child.
■Help your child stand up against violence. Support your child in standing up against violence. Teach him or her to respond with calm but firm words when others insult, threaten or hit another person. Help your child understand that it takes more courage and leadership to resist violence than to go along with it.

■American Academy of Pediatrics
■American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
■Coalition for Children
■Committee for Children
■Families and Work Institute
■National Resource Center for Safe Schools
■National School Safety Center
■U.S. Department of Education

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