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Bullying has been increasingly recognized as a serious problem for children and adolescents over the past several decades.  While once mistakenly written off as a normal, even necessary, part of growing up, psychological research has documented the serious and damaging effects that severe or chronic bullying can have on a youth’s emotional, mental and physical well-being.  Chronically bullied children can become depressed, exhibit school refusal behaviors, begin bullying other peers themselves, and even become suicidal or develop other severe psychological problems.  A little teasing now and then may be extremely common and relatively innocuous for most school-aged children, but for a significant percentage of them – as many as a third according to numerous studies – bullying can become severe and chronic enough to begin causing serious harm. 

A recent large study surveyed 4,300 children in fifth, seventh and 10th grades about bullying and their mental well-being.  This research reinforced what many prior studies have reported; that bullying is extremely common and is frequently associated with reduced mental and emotional well-being and lower self-esteem.  However an additional layer was added to our understanding of the toll bullying can take on youth.  The study found that even once chronic bullying stopped, the negative effects on children’s’ mental and physical well-being lingered.  The more chronic and longer-lasting the bullying, the worse the damaging effects, even if the bullying had stopped.  As one of the researches involved in the study noted, “the effects of bullying compound over time, and it’s important to catch it early.”

But what can be done to help?  One important avenue to combat bullying which the article noted is the importance of bystanders stepping in when they notice bullying occur.  The reluctance of uninvolved persons to jump in and help someone in need is such a well-known phenomenon that it has its own name: the bystander effect.  Educating youth about bullying and empowering them to take a stand can help snuff out the social conditions which allow bullying to thrive.  Bullying can be seen as a systemic problem, in that it takes a number of factors working in concert to allow bullying to flourish: the youth involved themselves, the bystanders who sit by and do nothing, school administrators who fail to implement or enforce anti-bullying policies, and teachers who do not intervene or advocate on behalf of bullied students.  All facets of this system must change to effectively reduce bullying.

One potential area of support which this recent article did not mention is the importance of supportive teachers who form caring relationships with their students.  Research my students and I conducted has demonstrated that caring teacher-student relationships can help alleviate some of the negative effects of bullying.  Teachers can become tremendous and crucial allies in the fight against chronic school bullying.

What can parents do to help?  The most beneficial thing you can do for your child is to be a good listener.  Supportive and caring parent-child relationships are often cited as the single biggest protective factor against the damaging effects of severe bullying.  Likewise, aggressive or negative parental communication has been linked to increased bullying behaviors in their children.  Another way parents can help battle bullying is by enlisting the support and assistance of their child’s teachers.  Oftentimes teachers may be unaware of the existence or extent of a bullying problem, but once alerted can pay closer attention and intervene when necessary.  For a child being victimized by severe bullying, knowing they have trusted allies and advocates both at school and at home can make all the difference in the world.

Be well,

Dr. Stephanie

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Recently a number of articles have been written about the Little Baby Face Foundation (LBFF), a nonprofit providing free plastic surgery for children with facial deformities worldwide.  Controversy has flared over LBFF’s acceptance of cases in which children or adolescents are seeking facial plastic surgery due to severe bullying following a recent Dateline episode covering the issue.  For some people, including many mental health professionals, the idea of a child or teen seeking – and getting – facial plastic surgery to “fix” a physical feature which has garnered them relentless bullying, such as an overly large nose or too-small eyes, seems misguided at best and catastrophic at worst.

 

After all, the real problem is the cycle of bullying itself, not the reason for it, right?  Children need to be taught to accept and love their bodies, right?  That sticks and stones may break their bones but words can never hurt them, and that the real conversation should be about how to effectively stop bullying and prevent it in the first place, right?

 

Certainly, these statements have merit.  For the vast majority of youth bullied about their appearance, teaching them to accept and love their bodies, to ignore the bullies, to surround themselves with a protective network of friends, teachers and family members, and to remind themselves that bullies inevitably hide their own secret pain are certainly all positive and helpful approaches to take. 

 

The problem is, these and other traditional strategies don’t always help.  Sometimes, a child’s physical appearance may deviate from societal norms to such an extent that they become the target of bullying so relentless and cruel that the usual strategies amount to fighting a forest fire with a garden hose.  Adding to this pain are inevitable the chorus of adults encouraging the youth to “buck up” and “blow it off” and sharing parables about turning the other cheek.  Simply put, most people do not understand what it feels like to be severely and chronically bullied.  While well-meaning, these messages can often convey to the bullied child that their inability to “just blow off” severe and recurrent bullying must be due to a weakness or failure within themselves.  The more hopeless, powerless, and desperate a bullied youth feels, the more encouragements to simply “be the better person” begin sounding less like empowering bits of wisdom and more like a different kind of bullying itself, seemingly reminding them that if they were only better or more resilient, the bullying wouldn’t hurt so much.

 

The effects of chronic and severe bullying can be catastrophic to a child’s mental health and well being, as the frequent media reports of teens committing suicide due to bullying can attest, and can contribute to severe mental and physical health problems which may last well into adulthood.  Severely bullied youth need all the help they can get, and their self-esteem, resiliency, and coping skills may have been flattened by years of abuse.

 

While facial plastic surgery would be inappropriate for the vast majority of youth who are bullied about their appearance, for some with genuine physical differences different enough from their peers so as to attract ruthless and relentless bullying, surgery may represent not a “victory” for the bullies, but perhaps the way out of a vicious cycle.  Sometimes you have to change one thing to potentiate other changes.  Changing a problematic circumstance of a child’s physical appearance may give them the space, and emotional boost, needed to rebuild their self-esteem and provide them with a fresh start.

 

The key to determining whether a surgical procedure might be part of a solution to a truly severe bullying problem should be a thorough and detailed vetting process.  For example, care must be taken to ensure that the child is surrounded by a support system to help them through the transition post-surgery.  In addition, psychological screening can assist in discovering potentially problematic issues which may rule out surgery, such as the presence of an eating disorder, self-injurious behavior like cutting, evidence that the youth’s appearance is not the primary or sole source of bullying, and assessing the youth’s risk of negative psychological effects from the surgery.  Finally, any youth elected to undergo such a procedure should be receiving regular counseling from a qualified mental health professional to aid with the stresses of the transition, develop more effective coping strategies and support systems, a plan to deal with the likely-inevitable instances of future bullying, and ensuring that the surgery is viewed not as a “band-aid” quick fix, but as merely the first step down a challenging but more hopeful new path.

Today I felt like offering a number of RANDOM resources that may be useful to a variety of parents looking for RANDOM help. Here we go…

1. Here are some great bullying resources for you and your family: http://www.stopbullying.gov/, http://www.kidsturncentral.com/links/bullylinks.htm, http://www.adl.org/cyberbullying/, and http://www.cbsnews.com/2718-18559_162-1249.html.

2. Numbers for you or your family:

  • Teen crisis line: Always good to have a back-up if you or the family therapist is not available: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/Teens/Home.aspx (1-800-668-6868)
  • Suicide Hotline: For any and all ages: (877) 727-4747
  • Los Angeles Rape and Battering Crisis Hotline — all ages: (310) 392-8381

3. Interested in special education law for your child? Check out: http://wrightslaw.com/

4. Organizations that may help with a diagnosis of Autism: http://www.autismspeaks.org/, http://www.lafeat.org/web/, http://www.semel.ucla.edu/autism, http://www.themiracleproject.org/.

5. Check out some organizations I think are worth donating to: Focus Fish (http://focusfish.com/), Camp Zoe (http://www.campzoe.org/), Los Angeles Youth Network (LAYN) (http://layn.org/), Hillside Family of Agencies (http://www.hillside.com/Donate.aspx), and Heifer International (http://www.heifer.org/).

I will continue to post ideas about resources in the future. Please note that these are recommendations and by no means am I personally making an endorsement or suggesting any type of effectiveness. Again, merely recommendations for your leisure.

Best wishes,

Dr. Stephanie

 

A recent article posted on cnn.com describes legislation that may PROTECT bullies rather than prosecute them may be passed in the state of Tennessee. Check out the article at: http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/05/critics-say-proposed-tenn-bill-could-enable-harassment-in-schools/

What do you do to protect your child from bullying behavior?

Do you know the warning signs of victimization?

A good website to inform yourself and your children is: http://www.stopbullying.gov/

Stay informed and advocate AGAINST bad legislation.