Recent research shows that children who are bullied react by harming themselves. They don't go out and hurt others but instead inflict self-harm. I find this incredibly upsetting, as I'm sure you do. I've been following the bullying debate for some time. It's been discussed in a slew of magazine articles and was the subject of a recent documentary, "Bully."
The topic is especially timely due to last week's anniversary of the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, the Williamsville North High School freshman who posted videos and blog entries regarding his struggles as a bullied gay student and whose story sent shockwaves across the nation. Another case that made national headlines involved Tyler Clementi, a gay college student at Rutgers who committed suicide after he was cyberbullied by his straight roommate. Since 1999, 49 states have passed anti-bullying laws.
I find the topic very personal because I was bullied as a child. I was the small, weak, geeky Chicago kid who lived across the street from a rough-and-tumble neighbor, Fred. One day he was my friend and the next day he was my bully. My mom never understood what was happening. She used to say, "Why can't you just play nice?" It wasn't possible, Mom!
On to the study. Researchers followed 1,000 pairs of twins, evaluating them when they were 5, 7, 10 and 12 years old. They interviewed the children, the parents and the teachers and looked at how each child was doing in school, both academically and socially. They found that about 20 percent of the kids were bullied at one time or another - some incessantly.
When they delved deeper in each child's life, the researchers found that bullied kids, especially those who were picked on all the time, were three times more likely to harm themselves - cut their arms, bite their skin, pull out clumps of hair, bang their head against the wall and, worst of all, attempt or commit suicide, usually by hanging themselves. I remember reading about a 15-year-old boy in Indiana who hung himself because he couldn't stand the bullying. Awful, awful, awful!
My wife, Penny, and I have one Golden Rule of parenting: "You shall not die before us." That's why we made sure our kids didn't drink and drive, that they wore seat belts and put on a bike helmet. But we never thought of bullying as a risk factor for our kid's death. Have you?
So, what is bullying? It is unwanted, aggressive behavior. It's an imbalance of power. It may be verbal or physical. It might be spreading rumors, making threats or just plain attacks. Some argue that boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Isn't teasing just a "normal" part of growing up?
As parents, we don't want to sanitize our children's existence; that's not healthy. They have to learn to adapt in the real world - to face adversity and "grow up." But I'm not talking about "normal" childhood behavior, I'm talking about bullying. If we think about it, we all know the difference because we all knew a bully growing up.
My spin: Bullying is not a fad. It will not just go away. If you think your child is being bullied, break the code of silence and speak up. Take action. You might have to call a parent, a teacher, the principal or even a cop. It might mean you need to talk to the bully yourself. In any case, we need to confront this problem and not sweep it under the table.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WNED.