Junkfood Science: The silent pain of bullied children

April 17, 2009

The silent pain of bullied children

Despite concerns of healthy school environments, this week’s news reminds us that, for many young people, school is anything but healthful. Sadly, many victims of bullying are on their own to find ways to deal with it and they can often respond in unhealthful and even risky ways.

Healthcare professionals have been reporting for years that school-based anti-bullying programs are largely ineffective and even harmful, with growing numbers of children suffering physical, social and emotional problems resulting from bullying. Instead of recognizing that bullying itself is wrong, it would be unthinkable to advocate that the solution is for its victims to change — be it their skin color, disability, sexual orientation or physical features that lead them to be targets of discrimination.

This week, news has told the tragic story of a sixth grade boy in Springfield, Massachusetts, who committed suicide, hanging himself with an extension cord, after being bullied day in and day out at school. Local news reported a flurry of other parents saying that their youngsters were being bullied in schools and that school officials were unresponsive.

As Tolerance.org reports, this is at least the fourth suicide of a middle school age child linked to bullying this year. This young athlete and boy scout had been taunted for his smaller size, the way he dressed and “acting like a girl.” While this young man didn’t identify himself as gay, he was bullied by peers for being gay. “Why did this tragedy not make national headlines?” the advocacy organization asked. Is it because gay bullying is so common and that one-third of teachers admit that they’ve seen anti-gay bullying yet haven’t intervened? Today, children across the country protested anti-gay bullying with a day of silence.

Another 12-year old who’d killed himself due to “bullycide,” was in the news this week when his friends and family formed the nonprofit organization called B.U.L.L.Y., which stands for Building Understanding Love & Learning for Youth. They hope to educate kids about the consequences of bullying, teach them to respect others and take a stand against bullying.

An Iowa young middle schooler responded to years of being bullied by bringing a knife to school this week, resulting in another student being stabbed. Dr. Donner Dewdney, a child psychiatrist, said bullying isn’t unusual in schools right now and is a real problem. The cruel comments, ridicule and humiliation can result in violence, he explained. He said he was not surprised that this young victim had never told anyone he was being bullied because that’s common. “They're worried if they complain to the counselor if the kids find out they're going be in even worse shape,” he told local news.

No one celebrated the unhealthful and destructive responses of these children to being bullied and suffering years of stigma and abuse. They were all numbing tragedies.

In contrast, a teen girl whose life had been made hell by school bullies, even slashing her face, because she was fat and ugly was congratulated in the Mirror for her response: drastic weight loss and a makeover that took her from size 18 to size 6 and “transforming herself into a beautiful young woman.” The stereotypical myth, reinforced in the news, was that fat children bring their size and on themselves by eating sweets, that they deserve bullying, and that all they have to do is stop eating sweets and eat “healthy” and the pounds will magically melt away and transform them from “ugly and unpopular” to beautiful and desirable.

The awareness that bullying is wrong doesn’t apply to fat children. There have been no national days of silence for victims of fat bullying.

For decades, psychologists have been reporting widespread bullying of fat children and of body size stigmatization beginning as early as nursery school. As a recent study described, by the age of four, children have already learned staggering levels of prejudice towards fat children. Preschoolers attribute nearly all negative traits to fat children and are less likely to view them as having friends, being clever, kind or pretty, or to want to play with them.

Young people who become the targets of bullying are most often perceived as different from their peers in some way, says the National Youth Violence Prevention Center. According to the National School Safety Center, bullying isn’t just physical confrontations and direct threats of violence, but equally hurtful forms of rejection and exclusion, humiliation and name calling, manipulating friends and cruel messages.

As Dr. Ken Rigby is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Psychology and an Educational Consultant at the University of South Australia, explains, bullying is best defined as “repeated oppression, physical or psychological, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group.” Although it may involve conflict, violence or disagreement, it is not the same as any of these. “With bullying there is always a power imbalance which makes the ill-treatment of the victim possible.”

While healthcare professionals are increasingly recognizing the effects of bullying on children, there continues to be a marked reluctance among some schools to acknowledge how serious it is, nor understand what children experience, said Dr. Rigby. Most children never tell anyone they’ve been bullied, especially not their parents. But for those that do tell someone, the situation doesn’t improve in about half the time; and among boys, in about 9 percent of cases, it gets worse, he’s found.

For nearly nine out of ten victims of bullying, no one intervenes to help them, and national statistics estimate peers intervene around 11 percent of the time, with adult intervention at only 4 percent.

Victims of bullying have less social support and feel more isolated, putting them at higher risk for physical or emotional damage. “We must accept that for the most vulnerable children, schools are not such safe places,” said Dr. Rigby. For those who are bullied regularly, about one in three see school as “never or hardly ever” a safe place for them and the consequences to their health, self esteem, and academic performance and future opportunities is decidedly negative.

Susan Boyle told a British newspaper today that she endured years of bullying in school for her frizzy hair and for having a learning disability.* She endured decades of cruel stigma afterwards for her appearance and plumpness that continued right up to the moment, at age 47, she was finally given a chance and sang: “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living…life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

* Follow first link to hear Susan sing for her home town charity ten years ago.]

Bookmark and Share