Feb 16, 2012 Post By: Children's Health

The Secret Life of Girls brings bullying to light
Several Children's experts were asked for tips to share with parents who suspect their child is being bullied or is a bully.

One of the main issues brought up in the Dallas Children's Theater's production of The Secret Life of Girls, which is running now through Feb. 26, is bullying. As Kristen brought up in an earlier blog, growing up is hard enough and bullying has always been a rite of passage, but with the technology of today, it can be impossible for kids to escape their tormentors.

This Saturday, Feb. 18, one Children's experts, Dr. Gabby Reed, Ph.D., will join other experts and teens for a Q&A Talk Back session, as part of the day-long Teen Scene Summit. We invite you to come and take part.

We asked Dr. Reed and a couple of our other experts at Children's what parents can do if they suspect their child is being bullied or is a bully. And then, what can be done to prevent it? Our conversation is below:

Q: Are certain types of children or teens more susceptible to bullying?

Dr. Gabriela Reed, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist: There are usually two types of kids who get singled out to be bullied. There are the kids who come across as anxious, insecure and cautious, and then there are the kids who are easily emotionally aroused and perceived by their peers as aggressive, argumentative and annoying. Bullies are like sharks in that they "bump" their targets before deciding which to choose. Kids who have better social skills and who know how to assertively set limits with their peers are often not chosen to be bullied.

Dr. Jane LeVieux, Ph.D., licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist: Anybody could be bullied. For kids with a medical illness, it could be their overall appearance that makes them a target. There's also research that says kids with low self-esteem may be targets, and some kids may not have the social skills to say, "Leave me alone."

Dr. Crista Wetherington, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist: There's some literature to suggest that rejected children, such as children who are difficult to get along with or have poor social skills, are more likely to be bullied than the quieter, shy child.

Q: What makes some kids want to bully others?

Reed: It is a common bullying myth that bullies have low self esteem and are loners. In fact, most bullies have average to above-average self esteem and usually have little trouble making friends. It's important to remember that bullying is not a form of conflict, it is a form of victimization. Bullies often act out of a feeling of contempt toward their victim, whom they feel is somehow inferior.

LeVieux: There's a nonprofit group in Dallas called the Bully Suicide Project, and they've interviewed kids about this. They've found that a lot of kids who've been the bully said they didn't understand the person they were targeting, or they thought of their targets as different from them. Also, if children or teens are being bullied at home or by their peers, bullying others is a way to take it out on someone else.

Q: If a child is being bullied at school, what steps should parents take with school representatives?

Reed: Parents should contact their child's teacher or school counselor to ask for an in-person meeting, and emphasize that they want to work with the staff to find a solution. Set a follow-up appointment to talk about any progress that's been made. Make it clear that you expect the bullying to stop.

LeVieux: If the parents have already talked to the school and nothing's being done, then use other approaches, such as going to the school principal. If that doesn't work, then go one step above and talk to the school district.

Q: Jane, you meet with patients in the Emergency Room at Children's who come in when they're in emotional distress and may be having thoughts of suicide. How many children come to the ER in this situation?

LeVieux: We see about 20 kids a week who are in a moment of crisis, and I'm estimating about 35 to 40 percent bring up bullying.

Q: For those who have been bullied and have thought about suicide, what tools do you provide them with?

LeVieux: We help them write down the triggers that cause the emotional distress. That way, when they have these thoughts, they know some things they can do to alleviate the feelings. We teach children deep breathing techniques, or we find out what they can do physically to alleviate those feelings — like bouncing a basketball or kneading some clay or doing artwork.

Q: How can parents help their child who has been bullied?

Reed: It's important to try to empathize with your child. Don't blame your child for being bullied, and don't minimize your child's feelings. Kids who have been bullied need to know that the bullying is not their fault and that you intend to do everything in your power to make the bullying stop.

At the same time, parents can also help kids figure out what, if anything, it might be that makes them less socially successful. For example, if the child has trouble with interrupting people, it would be great for a parent to say something like, "I've noticed that sometimes when your friends are talking, you jump in and interrupt them. Do you think that maybe that bothers them? Would you like it if someone interrupted you when you were talking? What can we do together to help you to be better about not interrupting people?"

Parents can also role-play assertive ways for kids to communicate with bullies. When approached by a bully, parents might recommend walking away to a friend or safe person, laughing it off, directly telling bullies to "knock it off" or, if the bullying persists or becomes physical, telling a trusted adult that you and your child have identified ahead of time. Assertiveness and strong social skills will help kids now and in the future.

Most importantly, make sure your child has a safe and loving home environment where he or she can take shelter physically and emotionally. Parents can help make this a reality by eliminating sibling bullying and by keeping lines of communication open with their kids.

Q: Is there a way to prevent bullying?

Wetherington: This really comes down to changing the culture of schools and other environments where children are to not tolerate bullying. It requires a strong commitment from school staff, school administration, and from parents.