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NEWS | Oct. 17, 2012

Up close: When bullying strikes too close to home

By Air Force Maj. Gary Arasin National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - As the single dad of a 10-year-old boy, I ask myself whether I have addressed situations with my son in the best way. If I had done this, would that have happened? Should I have been a little less stern, maybe a little more?

Then THAT day happened. THAT day was different. The questions that were often rhetorical and introspective became laced with anger and THAT day I really did want an answer. THAT day was the day my son told me he didn't want to go back to school because the kids were picking on him. THAT day the question became, 'how could this happen to my son?'

My son, like most kids his age, is focused on video games and silly online videos.

He is also a little different because he has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and has taken medicine to address the issue for several years. His doctors can't determine whether his sometimes-odd idiosyncrasies - mostly social issue awareness - are a result of the ADHD or whether another underlying factor such as Asperger's Syndrome is at work.

Far too often this leads to stares and comments from other kids.  In many cases, children who have a learning disability, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or are somehow "different" are more likely to be bullied.

I can hear the collective groans now followed by "the problem isn't as bad as everyone says it is." Consider this, though - a 2011 American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry study showed half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years. More than 10 percent are bullied - socially, verbally or physically - regularly.

Maybe it's your neighbor's son or your niece. In many cases, it may have been going on far longer than most realize. Generally, only one in 10 children reports the abuse for various reasons, such as fear of retribution. This means the pattern can be taking place for months or longer before a parent or responsible adult finds out, as had been the case with my son.

THAT day I also asked myself if other parents are aware their children behave like this and if the behavior stems from children emulating their parents. In many cases, the answer is yes - sometimes without even knowing it. National Association of School Psychologists research shows children who observe parents and siblings exhibiting bullying behavior are likely to develop bullying behaviors. Many times the learned behavior is obvious.

Take the case of Megan Meier. She hanged herself three weeks before her 14th birthday in 2006 after receiving cruel messages through social media platforms. The mother of one of her friends had created a false account to send Megan harassing emails.

You may ask where the teachers and school staff are while this is happening. Having been an instructor in my last assignment and an education major as an undergraduate student, I know that teachers are pulled in many directions to meet all the expectations and requirements expected of them.

The average bullying episode lasts only 37 seconds and teachers notice or intervene in only one in 25 incidents. Often, the bullying in schools takes place during breaks, such as recess, at lunchtime, in the hallways or in the restrooms.

In many cases, schools and parental actions to deal with the issue are reactive. There are actions that can help the problem. NASP research shows that to be effective, the steps needed require a team effort between school staff and teacher, parents and the community. And the students have to be incorporated into the plan other than simply the recipient of actions. Other key factors NASP described include:

  • Early intervention - researchers advocate intervening in elementary or middle school, or as early as preschool. Group and building-wide social skills training is highly recommended, as well as counseling and systematic aggression interventions for students exhibiting bullying and victim behaviors.
  • Parent training - Parents must learn to reinforce their children's positive behavior patterns and model appropriate interpersonal interactions. School psychologists, social workers and counselors can help parents support children who tend to become victims as well as recognize bullying behaviors that require intervention.
  • Teacher training - Training can help teachers identify and respond to potentially damaging victimization as well as to implement positive feedback and modeling to address appropriate social interactions.
  • Attitude change - Researchers maintain that society must cease defending bullying behavior as part of growing up or with the attitude of "kids will be kids." Bullying can be stopped! School personnel should never ignore bullying behaviors.
  • Positive school environment - schools with easily understood rules of conduct, smaller class sizes and fair discipline practices report less violence. A positive school climate will reduce bullying and victimization

I remember when my son was born I had all the same aspirations many parents do. I hoped he'd be happy and healthy - maybe play some sports, do well in school and, most importantly, have friends he fit in with. Being a military family creates some unique challenges, but doesn't make it impossible.

It's heartbreaking to think about your child having to endure the teasing, the taunting, or physical abuse just because other kids think he or she is different. It can feel like you are stuck on an emotional rollercoaster. There are options, though. Communication becomes critical to stop the problem before it becomes too late, as in the case of Megan Meier, or should the victims decide to look to other means of resolution. The two students involved in the 1999 Columbine shooting incident were described by many as gifted students who had been bullied for years.

Talk with your children, especially if they start developing behaviors or symptoms they haven't exhibited before such as becoming withdrawn. Keep the lines of communication open with your child's teachers and become force multipliers by letting them know what your kids say. And be cognizant of how the behavior your child sees you exhibit can influence how they act toward others. While not foolproof, these simple acts can go a long way toward keeping you from having THAT kind of day.