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The Truth About Bullying

  • Walt Larimore, M.D. Author
  • Published Feb 20, 2004
The Truth About Bullying

Debbie's mom brought her into my office because of a change in her sleep patterns, appetite, weight, and mood. After taking a complete medical history, physical exam, and appropriate laboratory work, I determined that twelve-year-old Debbie was depressed. Although depression is becoming more common in teens, there was no family history of depression, and I couldn't identify a cause. Rather than quickly writing a prescription, I spent a few minutes talking to Debbie alone. I asked questions and listened. Then I asked, "Debbie, what's the hardest thing about going to school?"

Her eyes immediately misted up, and she looked down at her feet. I was quiet for a few moments as she wept. Gently I touched her arm. "Debbie, you can tell me."

"You won't tell anyone, will you Dr. Walt?"

"Not without your permission."

Debbie shared a story of physical and mental abuse that was being heaped on her daily by a small group of girls at her school. Debbie was terrified. She feared for her life. No wonder she was depressed! She didn't need a prescription, she need protection.

Far too many children, like Debbie, are bullied. As a result they are agitated, frustrated, and desperate for a way out. As parents, we need to take bullying very seriously. My colleague Bob Smithhouser clearly describes the serious nature of bullying: "Bullying is not horseplay. It's not impish sarcasm or an isolated fistfight. Bullying is deliberately hurtful behavior repeated over time against a victim unable to defend himself or herself. I t can be broadly characterized as either physical, verbal, or indirect (spreading rumors, intentional exclusion from social groups, etc)."

Bullying can have a terrible impact. As many as 86 percent of children in the United States say they've been bullied, and research shows that children consider the death of someone close them to the only experience worse than being bullied. Dr. James Dobson recognizes bullying as "a huge, huge problem in this culture." In a daily broadcast aired on October 25, 2001, he commented, "Kids can be cruel. I recently spoke with a strong Christian family whose son had contemplated suicide because he was being made fun of at school. People say, 'It's an overreaction. Everybody goes through that.' Sure they do. Most of us did. And most of us get through it. But most of us are different for having gone through it."

In the same recent broadcast, Dr. Dobson shared one reason he feels so strongly about bullying:

"For two years in junior high I was really taking it. I remember one day when I was fourteen that was really terrible. I cried all the way home. As usual, my good dad was there, and he sat me down to talk about it. He talked me down from the precipice. That's really important for you to understand. If [a boy or girl] has parents who are involved, when they run into these things you can work your way through them and release the tensions. But many kids don't have that. There's nobody home and nobody cares, or they care but are too exhausted to be involved. So the tensions grow. They get angrier, and there's a form of rage that develops inside."

Dr. Dobson was blessed to have a dad who was physically present and knew how to listen to and guide his wounded son. The anger and despair of bullied children who don't have this kind of loving guidance can lead to incredible emotional, relational, and spiritual wounding that may overflow into self-destruction or cause the child to lash out. In June 2002, the American Medical Association reported, "Without intervention, bullying can lead to serious academic, social, emotional, and legal problems." A 1998 study revealed that 10 percent of students in the United States who drop out of school do so because of repeated bullying. Even more shocking, it's been discovered that most teenage suicides and school shootings are committed by those who have been bullied or feel victimized or persecuted.

Many parents I talk to are surprised to learn that, as in Debbie's case, girls are bullying other girls. Some researchers believe that bullying by girls is more common than bullying by boys, and some even describe bullying among girls as an "epidemic." Rather than using physical means, most girl bullies resort to relational or verbal bullying. They may isolate another girl from their social circle or gossip maliciously about her.

Experts disagree on what causes some children to respond to bullying by engaging in violence or by committing suicide. But there seems to be a link between these responses and violent music, movies, and video games, which often buttress feelings of low self-esteem and even encourage self-destructive behavior. Many such forms of entertainment elevate violence as an appropriate payback for bullying. As parents, we must evaluate if these forms of entertainment are igniting an already bitter fixation-like pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire.

If your child suffers from unexplained fatigue, fear, sleep disturbances, or vague physical ailments that crop up on school days, he or she may be struggling with someone who is a bully. These may be your only clues, because children who are bullied are usually fearful of reporting it-even to their parents.

It's important to remember, however, that bullying doesn't have to produce devastating long-term harm. Dr. James Dobson offers this encouragement:

"The human personality grows through mild adversity, provided it is not crushed in the process. I have enjoyed happiness and fulfillment thus far my entire lifetime, with the exception of two painful years. Those stressful years occurred during my seventh- and eighth-grade days, lasting through ages thirteen and fourteen. [Yet] these two years have contributed more positive features to my adult personality than any other span of which I am aware."

Helpful Hints: Face Bullying Head-on

Bob Smithhouser, youth culture advisor at Focus on the Family, offers these tips for parents whose children are being bullied:

• Assure your child that you are on his side and you won't take any action without discussing it first. But also make it clear that your intent is to protect your child

• Realize that your child is not to blame for being bullied, and refuse to believe any lies being told about him or her. The bully is the disturbed one. Remind your children of their value in you and God's sight, and help them understand that no one can make them feel inferior without their permission.

• Pray with and for your child for protection and wise decisions making. Pray for the bully to undergo a heart change. Pray about how you should intervene.

• Chronicle tense encounters in writing. Without exaggerating, note what was said or done, where it took place, who witnessed it, and so on. Beyond being therapeutic, this is especially helpful if outside mediators need to enter the picture.

• Investigate the school's anti-bullying policy. Call and talk to the principal or other authority-not the bully or the bully's parents. Knowing the amount of support one can expect on campus-and where to go for help-can make a child feel less isolated.

• Help your child learn to rely on trusted peers for support. Peers can provide a crucial safety net for vulnerable young people.

Adapted from "The Highly Healthy Child" by Walt Larimore, M.D. © 2004 by Zondervan. Used by special permission of Zondervan Publishers. For any other use, please contact Zondervan Publishers for permission. All rights reserved.