Confronting the Issue of Childhood Bullying
By Punreet K. Bhatti, MD
Your heart starts racing, palms start sweating, breathing gets deeper then suddenly everything becomes blurry. This is what it feels like for a child who is being bullied at school and now even online. For me, it started early in elementary school and carried sporadically until high school.
Unfortunately our culture has made this act of power imbalance a sort of rite of passage for children. However, this kind of peer victimization can result in many short and long term consequences for not only the child being bullied but also the child doing the bullying. The victim can experience a range of somatic disturbances—such as difficulty sleeping—or a change in their stress response system—for instance, poor memory. The effects of bullying have also been linked to depression and drug abuse in adulthood.
What Research Tells Us
Surveys show bullying behavior to be a significant problem that affects a large number of youth. Up to a third of our nation’s youth are bullied at school. This is not including the 1 in 6 children who are also bullied online. For our most vulnerable populations, such as the LGBT community and children with disabilities, the issue grows even worse. In a large study surveying transgender youth, 82% reported experiencing daily cyberbullying.
Sadly, there is not enough research conducted on this issue. Most focus on the narrative rather than fully addressing the many contextual factors facing at-risk youth. Does the child have a good circle of friends? Is the bully being bullied at home and thus acting out at school?
Federal law can offer protection against bullying but may be limited when it comes to protecting a child who doesn’t fall under the enumerated protected class. This is why it is imperative that we make a push to include systematic evaluations on current anti-bullying laws and policies. These evaluations can help strengthen our state and local efforts to prevent, identify and respond to bullying.
Emerging research has shown the lack of effectiveness from schools adopting the ‘zero-tolerance’ policies. The findings report these policies:
- Have not made schools safer
- Are not effective in curbing aggressive or bullying behavior
- Can disrupt learning
- Are disproportionately used to discipline students of color
How We Can Help Solve the Issue
Factors that have proven to make a positive impact are support from school and district personnel—e.g. providing teacher trainings—, a strong school leadership, and effective communication and collaboration among teachers, parents and healthcare professionals. We can also work to train the other professionals who are a prominent part of a child’s daily life—e.g. bus drivers, cafeteria workers and librarians. Collaborating with existing school-based programs that incorporate tailored bullying prevention efforts to a targeted population is a great way the healthcare sector can make an impact and lend their support. Triple P and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are two such examples that have proven to work.
Focusing our research efforts evaluating programs, which tend to focus on all youth within a defined school setting, won’t combat the bullying problem. If we truly want to put a stop to the issue then we need to have a better understanding of how factors such as peer group dynamics, shifting demographics, changing societal norms and modern technology affect our youth.
Expulsion or detention for the at-risk youth who do the bullying won’t work. Nor will ‘talking it out’ or turning the other cheek. For me, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who saw the signs early and intervened with a class partner assignment. At the beginning of the assignment my partner was my bully but by the end she was a peer who I learned just needed someone to believe in her so her best self could shine. For both of us, education worked. A positive role model worked.
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