October is National Bullying Prevention Month.
Kids have now settled back into their school routines, and for some, this may include being bullied or behaving as a bully.
What does bullying even mean? The New Mexico Administrative Code 188.8.131.52 defines bullying as “any repeated and pervasive written, verbal or electronic expression, physical act or gesture, or a pattern thereof, that is intended to cause distress upon one or more students in the school, on school grounds, in school vehicles, at a designated bus stop, or at school activities or sanctioned events. Bullying includes, but is not limited to, hazing, harassment, intimidation or menacing acts of a student which may, but need not be based on the student’s race, color, sex, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation.”
Bullying can come in different forms: verbal, physical, social, and cyberbullying. Verbal bullying is when someone says mean or embarrassing things to or about an individual; physical bullying can be physical contact or destruction or stealing of one’s property; and social bullying is trying to destroy a person’s reputation or socially isolate them. The relatively new cyberbullying is the use of texting, email, social media and other online sources to humiliate, share embarrassing photos or videos, spread rumors, or try to socially isolate an individual. Kids can be bullied, be the person doing the bullying, or even be a bystander who observes the bullying.
Unfortunately, bullying is very common. According to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, almost 20 percent of high school kids in 2017 reported being bullied at school within the previous 12 months, and almost 15 percent reported experiencing cyberbullying. The rates are even higher for middle school students, with 45 percent experiencing bullying at school and 20 percent experiencing cyberbullying. New Mexico’s statistics are in line with the national average, except when it comes to kids not going to school because they felt unsafe. About 12 percent of New Mexico high school students reported missing school because of bullying, which is almost twice the national rate.
Bullying can cause both short- and long-term issues. Kids who are experiencing bullying may have physical signs of trauma, nightmares, school-avoidant behaviors or complaints (stomachaches are common), changes in eating habits, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. Kids who bully are often themselves suffering from anxiety, depression, conduct disorders, experiencing violence, or needing support.
There are multiple ways to address bullying when it occurs. For the children or youth experiencing the bullying, it can be helpful to try to ignore the person doing the bullying, stand tall and tell them that they are not going to fight with them, enlist friends who will support them when the bullying takes place, talk to a teacher or school counselor, or talk with their parents and/or pediatrician for advice. Sometimes it is necessary for families to become involved by contacting the school. For cyberbullying, it may be necessary to take a screenshot of the online evidence, or report an inappropriate posting to the site owner.
It is most important for kids who are bullied to be listened to and supported, and both kids who are bullied and the kids doing the bullying benefit from support and possibly counseling. New Mexico has state laws and model policies to address and prevent bullying in schools. It is also important for families to teach their kids what to do if they witness bullying: to not participate in the bullying, support their friend and discuss it with an adult.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this issue is prevention. Living and teaching the example of being kind, accepting, supportive, inclusive and understanding makes a difference. Stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Teach your kids digital citizenship: not sending something digitally that they wouldn’t be willing to say to that person’s face; not sending any words or images that they wouldn’t want the whole world to see forever; and not sharing inappropriate words or images that were sent to them with others.
Participate in one of the many activities listed this month on the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights website, www.PACER.org/bullying/. Post your support on social media using the hashtag #BullyingPreventionMonth. Register your school or organization as a Champion Against Bullying. Wear orange on Oct. 24, Unity Day, to support bullying prevention. You can make a difference and you can teach your kids to make a difference as well.
Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Please send your questions to her at email@example.com