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January 7, 2002

Why do some kids become bullies?

Aggressively taunting and teasing others may be a sign of problems at home, in school

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ANN ARBOR, MI - Everyone remembers at least one classmate who was well-known for aggressively taunting and teasing the kids with braces or glasses, or even pushing around the kids who were smarter or smaller than others, just to get some laughs.

You might even recall teachers and parents dismissing the behavior as "kids being kids" or telling those tormented to just ignore the bully. But ignoring a bully, whose behavior may be rooted in immense frustration or even abuse, usually isn't the answer.

Child and adolescent mental health specialists at the University of Michigan Health System say both parents and childcare providers need to be aware of what creates a bully's behavior and the toll it can take on the bully's victim to know when intervention is necessary.

"When you really take a close look at bullying, it's happening with kids who feel the need to be aggressive after being treated in an aggressive manner themselves," says Paul Quinlan, D.O., director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Inpatient Services at the U-M Health System. "They're the kids who may be suffering from abuse or from just not having their needs met at school or at home."

Quinlan says between 2 percent to 16 percent of the population under the age of 18 bully others. According to KidsHealth, the most obvious signs of bullying are hostility and aggression - either physically, verbally, emotionally or sexually - that is directed toward another child who is physically and emotionally weaker. And the National PTA says one of out every ten children is the regular victim of a bully.

So what makes a child become a bully? Often children who are dealing with difficult situations at home, such as divorce, or in school will bully others as a way to feel more important or in control of things happening in their lives. Typically, a schoolyard bully is a child who has low self-esteem and is looking to achieve popularity.

"I don't think they really mean what they're doing," says Karthik, an elementary school student, about why some kids become bullies. "I think they just want to try and bully someone so they feel cool. But really, they're not cool - they're just doing something very bad to someone else."

And if the bullying persists and becomes a chronic behavior, Quinlan warns that the child is at a higher risk to continue to engage in anti-social behavior, such as stealing or attempting to physically hurt others, as an adult.

"Bullying is something that needs to be dealt with in a very thorough manner," he says. "School systems and other programs that deal with children need to work to recognize and identify this problem behavior and offer assistance to the families."

When the problem has been identified, Quinlan suggests parents take a close look at where the behavior is occurring - whether it's only happening in school or in unique settings. If the parents notice the behavior is persistent during play activities, in school and at home, they should consider getting a mental health referral from their pediatrician to get the situation under control.

"The good news is there's good results with intervention," says Quinlan. "The situation will be controlled and parents can really begin to help their child."

Yet with bullying, the tormentor isn't the only one who may need a little extra help from their parents. At some point in every person's life, he or she will be the victim of a bully, maybe because they are different from the rest of the kids or they're more vulnerable and easier to pick on, says Quinlan.

Kelly, an elementary school student, knows all-too-well what it's like to be bullied. "I have been bullied by someone in my neighborhood and he's taken my lunch money and hit me a lot of times - he just hates me and he won't leave my stuff alone."

Because of such situations, parents always need to be on the look-out for signs of bullying, especially since children often feel embarrassed about the situation and may be reluctant to tell their parents about the bully. Some signs that a child may be the victim of a bully include:

  • Making excuses for not wanting to go to school
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating
  • Increased anxiety about school or certain situations at school like riding the bus, using the restroom or going to recess
  • Missing personal items or the need for extra school supplies or money
  • Excessive trips to the school nurse, especially during unstructured time like lunch or recess
  • Unexplained bruises or torn clothing

To help a child deal with a bully, Quinlan says that parents need to encourage their child to speak directly to the bully, but never to be physically defensive because bullies are often bigger and stronger than their victim. And Kelsey, an elementary school student, agrees.

"If you feel like you're being bullied, you should tell an adult, but if there's no adults around, you should stand up for yourself," he says. "But two wrongs don't make a right, so don't push them or hit them back."

Parents also need to provide extra support to boost their child's self-confidence, help them build social skills to avoid conflict and make friends, and encourage them to seek the help of an adult or friends when a bully's around.

Facts about kids & bullies:

  • Schoolyard bullies typically have low self-esteem and are dealing with difficult situations at home, such as divorce, or are having trouble in school.
  • Bullies direct their hostility and aggression at other children who are physically and emotionally weaker to feel more powerful.
  • When the school system or another childcare program has identified a conduct disorder, parents then need to take a closer look at where the bullying behavior is occurring.
  • Signs that a child may be the victim of a bully include increased anxiety, difficulty sleeping, bruises or missing personal items.

For more information, visit the following Web sites:

U-M Your Child Health Topics: Developmental & Behavior Resources: A Guide for Parents

U-M News Release: School bells signal worries for some kids

National PTA: Helping Children Deal with a School Bully

TeensHealth: Dealing with Bullying

KidsHealth: Bullying and Your Child

Written by Krista Hopson

For more information, contact Kara Gavin or Carrie Hagen, UMHS Public Relations, 734-764-2220, or by e-mail.

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