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Is Your Child Being Bullied?

If she’s being taunted, excluded, ignored, or talked about, she may well be. by Marybeth Lambe, M.D.

We often think of bullies as children who punch, steal from, or shove a helpless classmate to the ground. But other forms of intimidation are even more prevalent. Gossip, exclusion, insults, incessant teasing, silent treatment, rumors, and other kinds of humiliation all qualify as “emotional” bullying.

Such persecutions, which peak in grades four to eight, are more common among girls, though boys can also engage in these behaviors. Discouraged from expressing anger through physical violence or shouting, some girls commit verbal violence—more subtle, but equally destructive. An emotional bully might say something like, “If you talk to her, I won’t be your friend anymore.” Children who routinely suffer from such humiliation may face a life of low self-worth and confidence. They can also experience poor school performance, isolation, depression, and psychosomatic illnesses, such as headaches and vomiting.

Who’s at Risk
Horseplay, good-natured teasing, and petty spats are a normal part of childhood. But when one child wants the bantering to stop—and the other child won’t, that’s bullying. Bullies seek power or control over others, generally through shame or intimidation. They enjoy the power and want to make their targets suffer. For this reason, they often look for a child who won’t fight back or is too ashamed to enlist an adult, such as a teacher or a parent, to protect him.

Tormenters usually pick on a child who is different in some way—knowing, at least subconsciously, that the child may be already ostracized by his peers and less likely to be helped by others. A potential victim may have physical differences a bully can prey on, such as being chubby, clumsy, small, disabled, or of a racial minority. She may have social or emotional differences, and be shy, immature, learning disabled, adopted, or fostered. A bully may even target her own friends.

Bullying works because it makes the victim too embarrassed or ashamed to seek help. A bullied child is often so humiliated by or convinced of the truth of the bully’s words that she tells no one—not even her parents. Sometimes she’s even been taught by well-meaning but mistaken adults that she should handle the situation on her own.

The wounds and scars of bullying can last a lifetime. As adoptive parents, we must be aware of its implications. Emotional bullying is as damaging as a punch or a slap—and sometimes even more powerful, cruel, and memorable.

Marybeth Lambe, M.D., is a family physician and writer. She lives with her family on an organic dairy farm in Washington State.

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