By Meghan Vivo
After enduring relentless teasing, name-calling, and physical abuse at school, 17-year-old Eric Mohat killed himself. His suicide occurred on the same day a fellow student ridiculed him in class by saying, “Why don’t you go home and shoot yourself, no one will miss you.”
Fourteen-year-old Jeremiah Lasater, who had been taunted and had food thrown at him during lunch, locked himself in his high school bathroom and shot himself in the head.
Megan Meier, 13, committed suicide after being harassed online by a fellow student and the student’s mother. Friends reportedly said the suicide was triggered by a message, "The world would be a better place without you."
Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera were both 11 years old when they hanged themselves after being subjected to repeated verbal harassment by other students that included anti-gay slurs. Both suicides occurred in the span of one month – in April 2009.
A victim of intense verbal harassment and physical assault by a school bully, 13-year-old Jared High suffered from physical injuries, depression, and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. He committed suicide on Sept. 29, 1998.
Bulling isn’t a game of “child’s play.” Suicide is becoming a more common result of teen bullying like the cases described above. Whether it’s as subtle as spreading rumors or encouraging others to exclude someone, or as direct as hitting, threatening, taunting, name-calling, making sexual remarks, or damaging someone’s belongings, bullying affects nearly 30 percent of teens in the United States.
The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center estimates that about one-third of all U.S. youth are involved in bullying, either as a victim, a perpetrator, or both. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry believes the problem is even more widespread, reporting that as many as 50 percent of all young people are bullied at least once during their school years, with about one in 10 suffering from ongoing harassment and abuse.
Research suggests that the emotional scars caused by bullying are deep and long-lasting. Teen bullying makes the victim feel anxious and afraid, which can affect her academic concentration and performance and result in low self-esteem, social isolation, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Even years after the bullying has stopped, researchers have found that adults who were bullied as teens have higher levels of depression and poorer self-esteem than other adults.
A recent study that followed 6,437 children from birth to 13 years, conducted by researchers at the University of Warwick, found that children who are bullied at school were twice as likely as nonbullied children to develop psychotic symptoms by early adolescence. Children who were subject to sustained bullying over a number of years were up to four times as likely to develop psychotic symptoms.
Professor Dieter Wolke, lead researcher and professor of developmental psychology, said, “Our research shows that being victimised can have serious effects on altering perception of the world, such as hallucinations, delusions or bizarre thoughts where the person’s insight into why this is happening is reduced.”
Confronting a Teen Bully
Children and teens who are being bullied tend to be anxious, sad, and withdrawn, and may try to avoid social situations or going to school. Bullies commonly pick on teens with low self-esteem, weak social skills, or who are physically or emotionally vulnerable.
If your child shows signs of being bullied, or complains to you about being bullied at school, take her concerns seriously and make certain she understands that she can depend on you for support and help.
Before marching into the school or calling up the bully’s parents, talk with your child about what is happening at school and what can be done to stop it, such as avoiding certain situations or staying close to friends during the times the bullying usually takes place. By empowering your child to deal with the bully and practicing ways to respond nonviolently, he will feel more confident in his social skills and ability to resolve issues. If he trusts that you will consult him before taking any action, he is more likely to bring problems to your attention.
Next, encourage your child to ask a teacher or school official for assistance, rather than handling the bully alone. These trusted adults are on the scene every day and may be able to put an end to bullying behavior, possibly without the bully knowing a complaint was made. If the bullying continues or threatens to lead to physical harm, talk to an attorney or the police or consider confronting the bully’s parents.
The worst thing parents can do, according to most experts, is retaliate or encourage their child to strike back. Walking away or ignoring the bully’s comments is more likely to put an end to the behavior, especially if the victim responds with confidence and self-assuredness, whereas aggressive responses tend to intensify the bullying.
Encourage your child to spend more time with his true friends and participate in activities that he enjoys. Having a core group of people who care about you makes it easier to filter out rude or offensive comments from a bully.
In severe cases, it may be best to remove your child from the harmful situation and enlist the support of a therapeutic boarding school or wilderness program that can help rebuild your child’s self-esteem and develop greater coping and distress tolerance skills. If your child is the aggressor, these programs can help your child work through any underlying anger issues or other emotional or behavioral problems.
Today’s bully is a different creature than the bully you encountered as a child. Teen bullying behaviors tend to escalate, even progressing so far as to include death threats, taunts urging suicide, and violence with weapons. Don’t let your child suffer in silence.