Help bring your child's bullies out from under the radar

For some kids it's not the academics that challenge them in school, it's the social scene. Fitting in or not fitting in can have serious repercussions, and according to, more than 30 percent of school-age kids experience some form of bullying.

For years educators and parents regarded bullying as practically a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, basically ignoring the problem. Then the Columbine High School massacre happened. It was an incident with bullying at its heart and the single greatest example of school violence in U.S. history. Suddenly educators all across the country began to take notice.

What does bullying look like?

Bullying includes a range of behaviors such as verbal abuse (name-calling), psychological torment (excluding children and spreading rumors), intimidation techniques (sending insulting messages by phone or email (cyber bullying) or physical abuse (hitting, pushing or other forms of violence). In each case, the focus is a deliberate attempt to hurt another child.

According to Rachel Simmons, author of "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls," girls experience bullying in subtle and often indirect ways. One girl might coerce another to do something by putting the friendship at stake: "C'mon and shoplift with me or I won't be your friend."

They might also spread rumors about another girl, usually involving some aspect of her physical appearance, including the clothes she wears. Perhaps the worst form of girl bullying is exclusion, when the lead girl will exclude another girl from a group or tell others to ignore that child.

Girls certainly engage in violent acts of bullying, but it is usually less aggressive than what boys experience: pushing someone into a toilet, punching, hitting, or stealing prized possessions.

Victims themselves tend to be shy, but not in all cases. They may have weak social skills and have lower self- esteem, but again not in all cases. Bullies consider these kids easy targets because they usually don't report the incidents while trying to handle the maliciousness on their own.

Personally, I had a relatively idyllic childhood and didn't experience bullying until my senior year of high school. I was involved in several school activities but would never be considered one of the more popular kids. Midway through my senior year, a group of sophomores decided to make me their target. Who knows why? For weeks this group of girls took great pride in humiliating me throughout the school and encouraging other kids to greet me in a high falsetto voice: "Hi, Mary! Doesn't Mary look cute today?" It was horrifying.

Regardless of when and how it occurs, bullying involves a loss of power, safety, self- esteem, belonging, and control over one's life.

Warning signs of a victim

Bullying is a social problem that is on the forefront of school-wide interventions. The Seattle School District website has a wealth of resources on the subject. Here are the typical warning signs of a child who may be bullied:

* Significant loss of school social life: suddenly the usual friends are not calling.

* Speaks of former friends as jerks.

* Starts withdrawing from family and favorite activities.

* Comes home with torn, dirty clothing.

* Has unexplained cuts, bruises and scratches.

* Has few friends.

* Seems afraid of school, clubs, etc.

* Doesn't sleep well and/or complains of stomach aches.

* Takes a long, illogical route when walking to or from school.

* Has lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school.

* Appears sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he or she comes home.

* Experiences a loss of appetite.

* Appears anxious and/or suffers from low self-esteem.

Coping with bullies

Bullying can be devastating, often having a lifelong impact. A friend of mine is a prime example. James was the new kid at our New York suburban high school, moving into the area in his junior year from Virginia. Most of my peers had never met anyone who, to us, talked funny, dressed funny, and was unfailingly polite to adults.

He was an instant target.

To this day, he avoids all high school reunions and associations with the "good old teenage years."

Bullying can result in the development of eating disorders such as anorexia. It can also lead to depression and even suicide. In its most extreme cases it can result in school violence such as the Columbine massacre where the victims have finally had enough.

The best way parents can help is to talk with their children. Does your child clam up and refuse to talk to you? That's typical. Some kids feel they should be able to handle the problem on their own. Others feel that if they tell an adult about it, they are ratting on the bully and it will only get worse. Keep in mind that children with disabilities may be at a higher risk of being bullied than other children.

Try these conversational suggestions to break the ice with your child: I'm worried about you; Are there any kids at school who tease you in a mean way?; Are there any kids at school who leave you out or exclude you on purpose?; Are there any kids at school who you really don't like? Why don't you like them?; Do they ever pick on you or leave you out of things?

Point your web browser to for some great insights on how to get the talk flowing between you and your child. One of the best features of this site is 12 "webisodes," or interactive cartoons, involving bullying. The scenarios are realistic and they are an excellent conversation starter for parents and kids.

After each scenario, kids and parents can take a multiple-choice quiz about the actions that the characters took. This is an excellent discussion tool parents can use with their children. To reinforce concepts, the site has several user-friendly parent/child games.

It's also crucial to talk with staff at your child's school. Call or set up an appointment to speak with your child's teacher. Sometimes bullying goes right under a teacher's radar, and many bullies are subtle in how they go after victims.

Try these questions with the teacher: How does my child get along with other students in his/her class? With whom does he/she spend free time? Have you noticed, or have you ever suspected, that my child is being bullied?

Give examples of some ways that children can be bullied to be sure the teacher is not focusing on one kind of bullying. Take caution here, in some cases a teacher may actually contribute to the bullying by making fun of the child or humiliating them in front of his or her peers.

Is your child a bully? The next edition of School Smarts will help you find the answer.

Mary Sanford may be reached through[[In-content Ad]]