When her 10-year-old son began talking about killing himself, Karen*, a Medford mom, didn't know what to do. "Within a matter of weeks, he went from being a normal boy to being angry, silent, withdrawn and then this," she says. With the help of a counselor, Karen discovered that another student was bullying her son at school, and that it had been going on for some time.
Karen's son is not the only one. Some studies say that as many as 80 percent of kids report being bullied at some time during their school years. "When a person is confronted by a bully it's scary and embarrassing and often the individual can't find his/her voice," says Kate Caldwell, licensed clinical social worker in Medford with a special focus in children, teens and families. "The individual doesn't often have a quick response and may feel helpless as to how to react." The resulting fear, embarrassment, low self-esteem and helplessness can lead to depression, anxiety and hopelessness with sometimes devastating effects. "Often kids won't talk to anyone about how they are feeling or they themselves don't know how they are feeling and can't put words to it," adds Caldwell.
As more children and teens are being given cell phones with photo or text capabilities and access to Internet chat rooms and social sites, a new and growing problem has emerged - the "cyberbully". Threatening messages, demeaning rumors or misinformation quickly take on a life of their own once they start spreading via electronic forums. And it can create challenges for teachers and parents trying to protect their students.
"A lot of the cyberbullying is happening off school grounds," says Dean Murdoch of Eagle Point High School. "If we get proof it happened from a school computer or during school time, we take action." How can parents help?
Monitor your student's accounts on the Internet. While you don't have to read every word, the occasional check may alert you to trouble. Make sure online sites have a closed profile so only allowed people can contact your child.
Know who is contacting them and what they are saying. Save any threatening or suspicious messages or contacts in case you need to report the matter.
Talk to your children about online safety. They don't always realize that the person they're communicating with may not be who they say they are.
Children and teens often don't report bullying for a variety of reasons, says Dean Murdoch, disciplinarian at Eagle Point High School in Eagle Point. "I feel like a lot of students don't report it because there is a fear of repercussion or retaliation," says Murdoch. Often, he says, it's parents who will call instead.
Keep in mind that bullying can be verbal, physical or emotional. Why does it happen? "In my opinion, kids who bully are often kids who feel out of a circle of friends, family, school, are not grounded in activities or school, often have little input from adults in their lives, " says Caldwell. "Just as the individual who gets bullied, the bully doesn't feel good about himself/herself and feels that the way to get needs met or to feel better about self is to bully others, to have a sense of control and mastery even if only for a moment."
It can start early. "About fourth or fifth grade is when it really starts," says Tyson Wolfe, Eagle Point High School's attendance co-coordinator. And it can quickly expand beyond the schoolyard into the growing realm of cyber bullying, Wolfe adds. "They're being taught to surf the Internet and that's when this starts."
What can parents do if they suspect a bully in the real or virtual playground?
"Any drastic change in a child's behavior or attitude can be a signal that something is going wrong in the child's world," says Caldwell. If "a once happy-go-lucky kid suddenly becomes withdrawn, unhappy, something is up and needs to be checked out."
First, says Caldwell, talk to your child and brainstorm possible solutions or strategies. "Children need fundamental skills to develop a strong inner sense of themselves. For some children, this comes more naturally, others need a little help. One skill is peer smarts, the ability to not only make and keep friends but the sense to know when to walk away from friendships or situations that are harmful or demeaning."
Secondly, consider contacting a teacher, principal or leader where the bullying is happening. The most likely place for bullying to happen is at school, largely because of the amount of time children spend on school grounds, and schools have resources to help.
"We'll always look into it," assures Murdoch. Most instances can be resolved with a simple discussion and they offer additional resources when needed. "We go through a mediation process," says Wolfe, "to let [the student being bullied] know we're going to make school as safe as possible."
Thirdly, contact authorities if the situation warrants. As texting, cell phones and social Web sites are added to a child's world, the ways for bullies to operate expand exponentially and can quickly become a criminal matter.
Lastly, says Caldwell, "Parents need to know their children as well as love them. Parents need to create time to pay attention to them. This will help children develop a sense of self in order to deal with the demands of growing up."
*Name changed for privacy reasons