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Bullying: The pain on the playground
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

If you think back, you probably remember that kid.

 

He may have pushed a smaller kid’s face to the mud, or mocked a stutterer. She may have spread ugly rumors about another girl who was less popular. Maybe you were the victim of a bully – or maybe you were the bully. Even though the grownups said, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you,” you’ve probably never forgotten your experiences with bullying.

 

There have always been bullies, but today we know more about the problem. The National Institutes of Health reports that more than one out of seven middle school and high school students report being bullied. The shootings at Columbine High School were attributed to bullying, and mental health professionals know that adults still carry the emotional scars they received from bullying as children.

 

A study published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal says that children identified as bullies at age 8 are six times more likely to have a criminal conviction by the time they are 24. Those who don’t break the law may still face difficulties in the workplace and in their marital relationships. Bullying is bad for everybody – the bullied, the bullies, and onlookers who may feel intimidated and anxious.

 

We also know that bullying isn’t just a boy thing. “Girls can be bullies; they just tend to do it under cover,” says Tami Gulland, a family coach in Madison. She defines bullying as “any form of physical, verbal or emotional mistreatment that happens when one or more children hold unequal power over another, purposely and repeatedly, with an intent to hurt or humiliate.” By this definition, girls are quite capable of playing the role. “With girls it’s more about gossip, malicious rumors and exclusion, although it’s sometimes physical as well,” she says.

 

The “target,” says Gulland, can experience “a decrease in self-esteem, phobias, academic difficulties, or even physical illness.  He may withdraw from family and friends. Since it often occurs in the restroom, some targets are afraid to go, and they ‘hold it’ all day until they get home.”

 

Who are the “targets”? “Generally, they’re children with low self-esteem. “They may carry themselves without a firm stance, they may be shy,” says Gulland. The Wisconsin Medical Journal says that bullies pick children for their “differentness” from their peers – because they have very low (or very high) academic success, an emotional disturbance, a physical disability, or a developmental delay. In the higher grades, homosexual orientation (whether true or suspected) can provoke bullying.

 

Patti Herman, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Wisconsin, says PCAW sees bullying as a form of child abuse, albeit an atypical one. “We tend to think of ‘child abuse’ as being perpetrated by an adult, but bullying damages a child’s spirit and well-being as well,” she says. That’s why PCAW includes bullying among problems youth are taught to avoid in its Protective Behaviors program, along with physical and sexual abuse. They teach that children “have the right to not feel threatened by physical or emotional bullying – and that it’s their responsibility to not bully others.”

 

The Protective Behaviors program also helps children identify a network of adults they feel safe talking with if they’re having a problem. Once they’ve learned to recognize when they feel unsafe, they can go to someone in their “network” to talk things through. Children are empowered and encouraged to find their own solutions, and adults may step in as a last resort if the problem continues or escalates.

 

PCAW’s program also addresses the bullies – generally, kids who have problems with their own self-esteem and attempt to raise it by hurting others. “We teach them that if they feel like bullying someone else, there are other things they can do instead to deal with their feelings,” says Herman.

 

The schools, too, are working hard to address bullying. Steve Fernan, of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, says the DPI has trained 400 educational professionals with Sticks n’ Stones, a K-12 curriculum that “discourages bullying in all its forms, while increasing the social skills that improve interaction among students and between teacher and student.” The Wisconsin Medical Journals says the program results in “increased student self-awareness, greater school attachment, increased academic successes, and fewer student absences.”

 

What can parents do? If your child is the target, resist the urge to jump in and fight your child’s battles. When things are calm, help the child imagine some scenarios, “so they can come up with a game plan that will help them to feel capable of handling this,” says Gulland. With verbal bullying, he can set boundaries by saying, “I feel upset when you talk to me that way, and I want you to stop.” If there’s a threat of physical bullying or if bullying continues, school personnel must be informed.

 

Most importantly, remember that children’s perceptions are different from adults’. “Take his concerns seriously,” says Gulland. “Don’t belittle or minimize.” 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Woman. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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