N. Leigh Dunlap


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Sticks and stones may break some bones –

But those, at least, can heal. Think words can’t hurt? That kids can tough out the taunting and torment we tend to think go along with childhood? Guess again. A healthy body is part of the picture, but mental and emotional health are proving to be just as critical to a truly healthy child. More and more studies are showing that the biggest threat to a kid’s long term health and success is something many of us once considered a normal rite of childhood – bullying.

As many as 70% of kids are directly affected by bullying, either as victims, bullies or both. And the long-term effects are proving to be very long indeed. Victims of bullying face a significant risk of increasingly antisocial behavior, chronic depression, substance abuse and even suicide. Kids who are bullies in grade school are several times more likely to run afoul of the law as older kids and adults. And some of our ideas about who bullies whom are turning out to be wrong. The conventional wisdom that bullies are insecure and cowardly has been resoundingly laid to rest. Bullies, in fact, have high self-esteem and tend to be self-confident. And while almost any kid can be a target, the most at risk of ongoing victimization are the kids with low self-esteem and weaker social skills -- making it very hard for them to defend themselves.

So how do you protect your child from this health risk? First of all, by taking it seriously. The “just let them fight it out” approach works okay for wolf packs but not so well in human society. The most crucial element is zero tolerance; parents, teachers and school administrators all need to be united in sending kids a clear and unequivocal message that bullying is not okay.

“Being bullied is not just an unpleasant rite of passage through childhood. It’s a public health problem that merits attention. People who were bullied as children are more likely to suffer from depression and low self esteem well into adulthood, and the bullies themselves are more likely to engage in criminal behavior later in life.” - Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the NICHD.

Kids:

You can start an anti-bullying squad at your own school. Talk to a trusted teacher or counselor about being your “coach”, someone who can advise you and someone to report to. Have t-shirts or buttons made to identify your squad and encourage other kids to join. The idea is to send a clear message that bullies aren’t tolerated at your school and that someone will always be on the lookout.