Bullied for the first time during recess in second grade, Spencer recalls the kids laughing at him for being pale and skinny. I met Spencer shortly after his fifteenth birthday. He was released into my care after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Thin, gaunt and dressed in black from head to toe, he entered my office avoiding eye contact. Spencer quietly sat in the corner of the couch. His hands shook visibly.
When I asked him how he was feeling, his eyes welled and he said, “I’m okay. I just feel like nothing I do is good enough. I’m such a loser. I didn’t really want to die, I just don’t know what else to do to stop the pain. The kids at school laugh when they see me. They call me “gay guy” “weirdo” “freak.”
I asked Spencer if he had any friends and he said yes, although no one seemed to come to mind. His ‘friends’ hardly ever returned his text messages or came over when invited. He intimated that certain boys and girls posted awful things about him on Facebook. They routinely made up lies and made fun of him. For Spencer the humiliation was deep and profound.
The kids stopped after word got out that he tried to hang himself, but the damage had been done. Spencer felt lonely, depressed and ashamed.
The awareness of bullying has hit the headlines lately, primarily due to the recent tragic deaths of teens bullied, either because of their sexual orientation or traits that make them seem different. For Hadley, MA student, Phoebe Prince and Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, the bullying resulted in them taking their own lives.
The heartbreaking effects of cyber-bullying have become even more rampant with the explosive use of the Internet, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
It is up to the caretakers: parents, principles, educators, therapists, community leaders, guidance counselors, and clergy to step up to prevent and protect our children and teens by creating an awareness of the inherent dangers of bullying. Thankfully the media has taken an active role in exposing the devastating damage that accompanies this behavior. Learning about prevention of bullying and strategies for dealing with bullying behavior are critical components in helping our children.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is an excellent resource for children and adults. Their site features interactive videos educating kids on the effects of bullying and provides effective strategies for managing bullying situations. There is also a dearth of information about the laws, statistics, and actions that can be taken by caretakers to prevent and manage bullying and/or cyber-bullying.
Strategies for Parents
- Stay involved in your child’s life. Notice any change of behavior or mood. Does he or she seem to be isolating, anxious, depressed, irritable–more (or in a different way) than usual?
- Know who your children are spending time with online and off. If you discover that your child is being bullied get more information and involve the school involved if the bullying takes place there.
- Let your child know that you support and protect him or her no matter what. Help your child build resilience.
- Keep track of the social sites your children visit and know their passwords. SafeSocial is a site that helps parents keep track of which sites their child has visited and where images of him or her have been posted. It is best not to hide that you are keeping track, as this can lead to a break in trust.
- Perhaps your child is the bully. In this case pay attention to what is going on with him or her. Create a dialogue where this can be discussed and help provided. Bullies have often been the target of bullying themselves and is often a learned behavior.
- If your child is the bully, let them know that there is zero tolerance for this behavior. Bullying is wrong and something this behavior must cease or there will be consequences that are enforced. Teach your child to make amends to the victim. If your child is resistant to you seek out the resources offered in your community to help you deal with this difficult issue.
Bullying prevention needs to be a mandatory, integrated part of our school systems. The negative affect bullying has on our children can leave lasting emotional scars and in more extreme circumstances can be implicated in self-injurious behavior and suicide. We need to come together as educators, parents, community leaders, and mental health professionals to support our children and ensure their safety.