Putting a Stop to It Before It Causes the Most Damage
When children complain about a headache or stomachache, parents may seek immediate relief with over-the-counter painkillers or antacids. But when the symptoms recur, over and over again, a trip to the family doctor may reveal a sinister reason: Bullying.
“They don’t want to necessarily admit that bullying is the reason, or underlying reason,” says Dr. Donald Eason, a pediatrician with Winter Haven’s Clark and Daughtrey Group, a division of Lakeland Regional Health Systems, and a Polk County Medical Association member. “Some don’t realize it.”
Youngsters may feel the problem is their fault. “My suspicion is a lot of these kids are actually kind of embarrassed by it. And because of that, they don’t usually come right out and say, ‘I’ve been bullied.’”
Dr. Matthew Cory, a pediatrician at Lakeside Pediatrics in Lakeland, agrees. “Usually you have to hunt for it [bullying] to be able to find it,” Dr. Cory explains. “Even if you directly ask the questions, a lot of times the answer is going to be ‘no.’ Sometimes it’s because the child is afraid of retaliation. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to admit it. It probably happens a lot more than pediatricians, psychologists or counselors are able to prove or document.”
Bullying is usually verbal, although it can be physical. It always involves an imbalance of power and unwanted behaviors such as teasing, physical violence, public humiliation, stalking, or rumors. The unwanted behavior is repeated. Bullying can take place at home or at school, even through digital devices like computers, tablets, and cellphones. Victims may become depressed, afraid to attend school, and in extreme cases, take their own lives.
National outrage about bullying has led a massive campaign against it. That includes mandatory anti-bullying policies in Florida’s public schools under the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, which was adopted in 2008 after a Cape Coral bullying victim committed suicide.
In Polk County, students are taught about bullying at every grade level at the start of the year. Substantiated bullying incidents fell from 175 in the 2010-2011 year to 136 in the 2011-2012 year, says bullying committee member Cathy Boek.
“We take bullying very seriously,” says Jim Maxwell, a school psychiatrist and bullying team member who directs Polk’s Student Services. “We’re real aware of the research-based systems of addressing bullying. We’re implementing as many of those strategies as we can. Resources are tight.”
Anti-bullying efforts seem to have expanded awareness. “What they’re more comfortable doing is reporting for other people,” observes Audrey Kelley-Fritz, another bullying committee member who serves as Polk’s senior manager for Prevention, Health and Wellness. “Our parents and adult population are becoming more knowledgeable about bullying […] They are becoming more savvy at listening to our children and reporting it for them.”
Sometimes children report bullying for their friends. “I love when I hear ‘I’m tired of seeing this happen to my friend and I don’t want to see it happen anymore,’” she says.
Effective July 1, the state officially expanded its definition of harassment or bullying to include cyberbullying, or computer-related bullying. Schools are mandated to take action against cyberbullies who interfere with student learning. The change is expected to have little effect in Polk County, where the policy already encompasses cyberbullying as it effects students on their campuses. “We’ve always addressed cyberbullying,” says Boek, who manages substance abuse and violence prevention.
Being aware of what to look for is an important first step in the battle against bullying. Smaller, weaker children without a lot of friends, who are often more emotional, may be the primary targets, Dr. Eason says. These children also may be a little bit different in some way. During a bullying episode, Dr. Eason suggests the children remain calm and avoid the situation if possible.
When walking away isn’t the solution, experts sometimes recommend a bland response. “I like a bland response the best,” says Kelley-Fritz. “Everybody can do just a bland response. You don’t show them you’re upset.” The bully is then more likely to become bored and leave the child alone. “Someone who bullies really likes the [upset] reaction,” Kelley-Fritz adds.
Experts like Israel “Izzy” Kalman, a nationally certified school psychologist behind the Bullies2Buddies program promoting the Golden Rule, recommend solutions like asking the bullies what made them mad, in an attempt to have conversations rather than physical confrontations. Some suggest standing tall and verbally confronting the aggressor. “You almost have to practice that kind of confrontation so it comes naturally,” Dr. Eason suggests. “Role playing at home can be helpful.”
At Lakeside Pediatrics, bullying is one of several potential problems doctors try to anticipate, including tobacco and substance abuse. They educate parents through literature. “We kind of take an inventory of what’s going on in a child’s life. For some kids, bullying may be something more relevant,” Dr. Cory says.
A change in mood or behavior, including the child’s desire to avoid certain situations, is a red flag, says Dr. Cory, who refers those suffering from anxiety or depression to mental health counselors. The longer the problem is unaddressed, without resolution, the more likely there will be long-term consequences, “possibly fatal consequences,” Dr. Cory advises. “Middle school and high school can be rough places,” he continues. “With the advent of social media, it’s given kids who are going to bully another avenue, another tool.”
In cases where bullying is suspected, but not confirmed, he recommends that parents contact the child’s teachers, guidance counselors, and other people from school that know the child for more information. “A child in a bullying situation is very vulnerable. They need to seek the help of an adult,” Dr. Cory says. “I encourage parents to know their children’s friends. Know whom the child hangs around with. Sometimes those friends may give you some clues.”
To report bullying in Polk County schools, or learn more about the district bullying policy, visit: http://www.polk-fl.net/districtinfo/departments/learningsupport/studentservices/bullying.htm
Free resources are available online through Bullies2Buddies: http://bullies2buddies.com/Free-Manuals/enjoy-our-free-resources.html
story by CHERYL ROGERS