Last spring, parents everywhere inhaled a sharp, collective breath as news broke of the untimely death of Jon Carmichael, a Fort Worth-area eighth grader who took his own life—reportedly to escape the ongoing torment of bullying. And, another, more recent death, that of fourth-grader Montana Lance from The Colony, while still under investigation, raises questions. No longer limited to pushes on the playground, bullying is now often a 24/7 ordeal, thanks to the surge in social media and the popularity (and anonymity) of mass texting.
cries for help
Defined as the habitual act of one person badgering and intimidating those who are smaller and weaker, bullying is rapidly becoming one of the biggest concerns within the nation’s schools, despite many states’ anti-bullying laws (including Texas). According to the National Education Association, nearly 160,000 students miss school because they fear bullying. Texas, in fact, has taken the “bully” by the horns and, its 2010-2011 Ready.Set.Achieve program includes a “Stop Bullying Now” resource and parent-education program (www.txpta.org/programs/parent-education). But in light of such alarming numbers, there’s a tough question that begs to be asked: What do parents do if their child’s not the victim, but rather the bully?
The answer, according to experts, is simpler than the problem: Lead by example.
Children whose parents display frequent bouts of anger or exhibit poor mental health have a higher likelihood of becoming bullies, finds the just-released study How Parents Can End Bullying: Risk and Protective Factors for Child Bullying in the United States.
Dr. Rashmi Shetgiri, a pediatrician at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Children’s Medical Center Dallas and a researcher on the 2010 report, encourages parents to seek professional assistance to learn how to manage their own anger to help prevent passing on aggressive tendencies to their children. “Parents should also work with healthcare providers to make sure any emotional or behavioral concerns they have about their child, as well as their own mental health, are addressed,” she advises.
But experts say even the most calm, cool and collected parents can still have a child who becomes a bully as, with most things, there are many contributing factors at work. “The home is not always where [bullying] starts,” reveals Dr. Jeremy S. Baker, a North Texas-based pediatrician. “Peer groups can have a tremendous impact through the acceptance or encouragement of bullying, as can school or community environments where there’s lack of supervision or more social chaos.”
Additional catalysts often cited in the instigation of bullying are television programming, Internet content and video games that promote aggression or violence as normal behavior.
what to look for
Experts say parents should take note of a child’s feelings of inadequacy, the desire to avoid responsibility, the need to reduce fear of being seen as inferior and the want to divert attention away from themselves, all of which are common traits that drive children to bully others.
“Additionally, parents should watch for isolation, an increase in physical illness and in verbal aggression and a low sense of self,” shares Ross Teemant, an area-licensed clinical social worker. “If parents are paying close attention to changes in behavior and respond to their children with love, understanding and accountable discipline, they can influence the [tendency to] bully.”
It’s critical, say experts, for parents to help their children overcome these obstacles early on and to continue a running dialog and maintain active involvement in their child’s life. “Parents who share ideas with their children, talk with them and [take the time to meet] their friends are much less likely to have children who become bullies,” offers Shetgiri.
With bullying seemingly on the rise and tragic stories like that of Jon Carmichael and Montana Lance making headlines, it’s now more important than ever for parents to be on the frontline of defense — to ask the questions, to be involved, to show love, compassion and unwavering support. To stop the bully before he starts.