Two best friends comforting each other

The epidemic of bullying has caught national attention, and students, faculty and parents are searching for solutions that make schools a safe place for everyone. Beliefnet spoke with Karen McGee, M.A., a School Counselor at Sampson Middle School in Clinton, North Carolina, about the importance of knowing the signs and what can be done to help.

What do you say to people who say, "Bullying is a common part of growing up. What do we make such a fuss over it today?
Unfortunately, with the generation changes, there has also been a shift in the way kids bully. This is due in part to their exposure to increasingly graphic or agressive media images than they have had in the past, which desensitizes many to violence and vile language. Instead of being unacceptable and punishable, these behaviors have become a "normal" part of many children's lives; it also exists in their homes and neighborhoods. Similarly, it has become more acceptable in our culture to criticize or berate others, seemingly without obvious consequences. Desensitized thinking leads to insensitive behavior, and when it involves children, it is identified as bullying. This bullying takes on various forms, many of which cannot be solved with just mediation and discipline. Bullying lives on via internet and text messaging, oftentimes originating from these mediums. These make bullying almost impossible to escape long after the problem has been addressed. Feeling trapped sometimes leads to a child hurting themself or others, or even going to the extreme length of committing suicide. Given these horrific outcomes, bullying must be taken seriously and addressed promptly because today it is more about saving lives than mending broken hearts.      

 How does bullying affect a child? Are their long-term effects?

The effects of bullying vary from child to child depending on the severity of the bullying, support systems, and coping mechanisms. Becoming withdrawn or openly critical of self, unmotivated, expressing inexplicable fear or anger are some of the effects of bullying. Bullying incidents that are not adequately addressed, which includes helping the victim learn to adequately cope, can continue to affect a child long after its occurrence. Also, children who do not have strong support systems will likely have a more difficult time recovering from a bullying incident. With this in mind, communication is vital, as well as removing the stigma that reporting a bullying incident is comparable to "snitching." Parents who regularly check-in with their children are more likely to notice red flags or early warning signs that something is amiss. These children feel less like it's them against the world and may feel more confident to handle a future incident.
What steps have you taken at your school to eradicate bullying?
Students are provided with monthly character education lessons that address all areas of bullying. These include types of bullying (verbal, agressive, emotional, etc.), roles of participants (bully, victim, bystander), ways to avoid bullying (traveling/sitting in groups, setting social network protections, keeping parents informed, etc.) and the importance of reporting (parents, teachers, counselors, etc.) Too often, bullying incidents are not handled in a timely or appropriate manner, which can be detrimental to the child. The more information students have about what bullying looks like and and how to help themselves, the more empowered they can feel about being in control of their circumstances. We inspire schoolwide awareness about developing good character by sharing daily "Wise Words" that challenge students to make more thoughtful choices everyday. For the first time this year, we also celebrated No Name Calling Week from Jan 23rd - 27th, which is a nationwide campaign against name calling in schools across America. The school and surrounding community enthusiastically embraced these efforts, prompting us to continue these anti-bullying efforts on a yearly basis.

What clues should a parent pay attention to  that indicate their child might be getting bullied?
Children who appear to suddenly withdraw from social interactions, become resistant to attending school, fake illnesses to leave school early (especially during certain times of the day), make frequent visits to the school nurse, constantly hide their social networking interactions, experience a significant grade depreciation, lose interest in once enjoyable activities or identify hopelessness/depression are all red flags that something is wrong. Investing in a system of support allows communication about concerns to flow more easily, making it possible to address a possible bullying incident early and effectively.
What should parents do if it's their child who is a bully?
Parents who receive the news that their child is the bully may struggle at first in knowing that others are being hurt by their child's actions. However, it's important for parents to help their child understand better ways to handle anger or stress so they will not choose to use bullying as an outlet. Use the school counselor and other personnel to become informed about bullying behaviors and their effects, including the discipline policy. This information can go a long way in a discussion about expectations for appropriate social interactions and the consequences for those that are inappropriate. Developing empathy is key in order for children who bully to learn  how to be sensitive to the feelings of others.
Besides educating them, encourage your child to participate in character building activities via a local 4-H chapter, other community organizations or even at school. However, continual and consistent communication is also very important here, too, since in some instances, children bully because they have become bullying victims. Seek to develop a trusting relationship with your child so they are willing to be honest about the reasons they bully, which places you in a better position to know how to help.

A new film is shedding light on bullying. Check out Bully at your local theater.

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