Almost every day, we hear or read a story about the harm done to people who cannot defend themselves against bullies. Here are some facts and suggestions that I hope will help you protect and promote the mental health of the children you love and the adults they will become.
What is bullying?
A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions by one or more others, and has difficulty defending himself or herself.
Bullying can take many forms, including comments, social exclusion or isolation, physical assault, spreading lies and false rumors, stealing money or damaging possessions, being threatened or forced to do things, discrimination by race, sexual preference or developmental disabilities or taunting over the phone or Internet (cyber bullying).
How common is bullying?
Every one of us has been a bully, been bullied or witnessed bullying.
Bullying is especially prevalent among middle school children, though more than half of all teenagers have suffered or engaged in cyber bullying.
Every day, an estimated 160,000 children stay home from school because of bullying.
Why do people become bullies?
People who bully have a strong need for power and control. They like causing suffering and are insensitive to other people's pain. They are often rewarded for their terrorizing actions.
Children who have been demeaned, neglected or traumatized often fail to make the connection between people and pleasure.
Bullies tend to come from families that express little warmth or affection. Their parents often use inconsistent discipline and don't pay close attention to their children's feelings or behavior. In turn, bullies report feeling less close to their siblings than do most children. This emotional detachment carries over to their relationships with others.
What happens to children who suffer, commit or witness bullying?
Depression, low self-esteem, health problems, poor grades and suicidal thoughts occur far more commonly among those who have been bullied.
Bullies ultimately get into trouble, too — sometimes even more than they cause.
They often are involved in fights and criminal activity, especially theft, vandalizing and weapons possession. They are more likely to abuse alcohol and tobacco, and to fail at school. And witnesses to bullying often are left feeling fearful, powerless, guilty and even tempted to participate.
Can bullying change brains as well as behavior?
Research shows that brain centers for reward and pleasure light up when bullies watch videos of people in pain. At the same time, regions of the brain responsible for self-control of emotions show little activity.
These changes happen over time when children observe, experience and learn to express and internalize feelings. Our minds literally take shape as we learn how to relate to others.
What can parents do to protect children from becoming bullies or victims?
Show children your affection. Model how to communicate genuine feelings and work through conflicts peacefully and with respect for other individuals.
Talk to your children about cyber bullying and the other forms, encouraging them to tell an adult when they feel bullied or see others being bullied.
Keep computers that children use in a shared or open space like a family room, and limit screen time.
Be sensitive to and inquire about changes in your child's mood, appetite, behavior, social life, grades, sleep patterns and health concerns.
What can communities do to help prevent bullying?
Promote places, policies, programs and practices that encourage equal access and discourage power relationships. Effective interventions include more streetlights, sidewalks, open parks, neighborhood associations, events, community gardens, clubs and adult-youth mentoring.
Organize supervised opportunities for children to express their feelings through art, writing, theater and music. Under the guidance of watchful adults, engage as many children as possible in games, sports and school projects. Create teams and projects that cause kids to rely on others with different backgrounds, personalities and abilities.
If we work to restore civility to our workplaces, our neighborhoods and our homes, there is a much greater chance that our kids might grow up in a fortunate generation — one rewarded with inner peace, interpersonal safety and national security, healthy competition, longer, less stressful and healthier lives.
Peter A. Gorski, M.D., M.P.A., is a child development expert at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, a pediatrician and a professor of pediatrics, public health and psychiatry at the University of South Florida.