Bullying—Why do parents miss it?

Claire McCarthyOver the past few months, I’ve started asking the patients in my primary care practice about bullying. I’m asking them all sorts of questions anyway, about their health and their habits and their daily lives, so it’s not so strange when I ask: “Does anyone pick on you at school?”

A surprising (and heartbreaking) number of children tell me someone is picking on them. Although, given that it’s estimated that up to a quarter of kids experience some sort of bullying, it really shouldn’t be surprising. But what really worries me is that most of the time when a kid tells me they are being bullied, their parents had no idea.

It worries me not just as a doctor, but as a mom. My middle daughter is an awkward, artistic, often moody pre-teen who is more of a loner than I like. She seems to me like just the kind of kid bullies might target. “Does anyone pick on you at school?” I ask her. “I’m not being bullied, Mom,” she says. But I still worry.

There’s been a lot of media attention recently on bullying, in the wake of the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley high school freshman who committed suicide after being persistently bullied. Some of that attention has been on the adults in her life. Some had no idea anything was happening. Some knew something was happening, but didn’t realize how bad it was. Some knew something was happening, and spoke up, but it didn’t help.

So what is it about bullying that makes it so hard for adults to see—and help?

It’s hidden. Bullies aren’t stupid; they hide what they are doing, so that they don’t get in trouble. And victims hide it because they are embarrassed—and because they worry that telling about it might make things worse (which sometimes happens). Cyberbullying, in which the bullying takes place on the internet or through text messaging, is even harder for adults to see; it’s silent, can happen when the victim is entirely alone, and occurs within a world and context that most adults don’t know about.

This means that parents, teachers, coaches and other adults who are involved with kids need to have their antennae way up. They need to watch for changes in behavior (anxiety, sadness, poor self-esteem, loss of appetite, for example), dropping grades, unexplained injuries, or coming home with damaged belongings (www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov has information on these and other possible warning signs that a child is being bullied). Direct questioning may not work; indirect questions (how do they spend their day, who do they eat lunch with, etc) may yield more clues. And if questioning doesn’t go anywhere, adults should check in with each other to find out what’s going on at school, home, in the locker room (I check in with my daughter’s teachers and guidance counselor regularly).

People don’t want to see it. We all want our children to be popular, to fit in. It’s hard to think that it’s our child, or our student, who is being picked on. Maybe it brings back memories from our own childhood of being picked on, times we’d just as soon forget. So when a child denies being bullied, says everything is fine (as a bullied child often does), we breathe a sigh of relief and take them at their word. That’s if we get up the nerve to ask. And if it’s our child who is the bully—well, nobody wants to think of their child that way. Nobody wants to think about what this might mean about them as parents; research shows that bullies often come from families who are uninvolved, overly permissive, overly harsh, or who role model bullying behavior. Since bullies are often popular students, it’s easy for parents to think: my kid is great, they would never do something like that.

Confronting bullying is really uncomfortable. But it’s something that adults need to do. Suicide is a rare consequence, but victims can carry emotional scars that can last a lifetime. And not only can being a bully be a sign of mental health problems, bullies are more likely to be aggressive or violent as adults. For example, bullies identified by age 8 are six times more likely to have a criminal conviction by age 24. This isn’t just a phase that will pass.

People don’t know what to do when they discover bullying. Indeed, it can be hard to figure out how to help.  Victims may be bullied worse when the bullies are disciplined, unless the adults are watching closely—but they can’t watch every minute. Some parents, some teachers, some school officials or coaches are more helpful than others. Some schools have rules and consequences, some don’t (although the recent law will help with that). Some victims are lucky enough to have kids stand up for them—others aren’t so lucky.

See, that’s the thing: we all need to fight this together. To make a difference, we need to change the culture of our schools, our teams, our communities; we need to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate bullying. This means education, lots of it, empowerment of kids to stand up against bullying, as well as clear and consistent consequences for anyone who bullies.

But we have to start somewhere. So as adults, let’s start by asking the hard questions—of our kids, of our communities and of ourselves. Let’s get involved, so that we can see what’s going on—and keep trying to find ways to help.

We want to know your thoughts on bullying and the effects it has on today’s kids:

Are there any tell-tale warning signs you recognize in your child that indicate a problem at school with another student?

Do you think that the recent rash of media attention on bullying, cyber or otherwise, has been sensationalized?

If your child has been the victim of bullying, what are somethings you have said (or would like to say) to the parents of the aggressor?