It’s something parents have come to expect when their kids hit middle school—but not kindergarten. When 5-year-old Julia first started at a private all-girls school on the Main Line, she was excited about attending. Soon, though, she was making excuses to stay home, becoming so upset on the morning drive that she’d become physically ill.
Her parents were at a loss. After alerting her teacher and the school, they learned that Julia was being relentlessly teased and excluded from playtime by her fellow kindergarteners. A female classmate was the ring leader, admitting that she was being mean because Julia, an Asian American, “looked different.”
Psychiatrist Taliba M. Foster has treated Julia and others the same age at her private practice in Ardmore. Early on, bullying tactics include everything from name calling to hiding toys. Kids also begin ostracizing others by excluding them from birthday parties and sleepovers. “It’s devastating to a child not to get an invitation when you know the rest of the kids are invited,” says Foster.
Fortunately for Julia, her teacher and school administrators took an active role in the situation, incorporating discussions about people’s differences into lessons and making sure Julia was included in play. Her anxiety lessened, and going to school became a positive experience again.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control sums up bullying as a form of youth violence. Bullies attack or intimidate with the intention of causing fear, distress or harm. Whether it’s physical, verbal or psychological, it typically involves repeated incidents over time. “There’s an unbalance of strength between the bully and the victim,” says Foster.
On the Main Line, triggers for bullying often involve race, ethnicity, religion and class. In Foster’s experience, kids with the most material things tend to be the most popular—and most times, they’re the ones who bully.
If you have children, chances are you’ll have to deal with bullying at some point. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that as many as half of all kids are bullied at some point. Even more alarming, at least 10 percent are bullied on a regular basis. Foster urges parents to recognize the differences between teasing and bullying. Repetition is what differentiates the latter from an isolated incident of teasing.
Not surprisingly, boys are more physical, and their female counterparts tend to bully with words and gestures. “The whole Mean Girls phenomenon is still going on,” says Foster, referring to the 2004 film and its protagonists’ ruthless campaign of rumors, gossip and exclusion.
The kids Foster sees may display symptoms of depression or anxiety, but the root of the problem is often some form of bullying. Other warning signs include school avoidance and a difficulty separating from Mom and Dad.
Foster does everything she can to help parents relate to their children’s feelings. “Basically, these kids are in school eight to nine hours a day, the same amount of time we’re at work,” says Foster. “If you’re being tormented that amount of time every day, it’s completely justified to feel depressed and anxious. Bullying carries a lot of weight.”
In January of this year, an incident involving a 13-year-old student from Upper Darby made national headlines. After Nadin Khoury was brutally beaten by seven classmates, the teen appeared on The View, talking about what happened in front of a national audience and spreading the word about the perils of bullying.
Eagles offensive lineman Todd Herremans also appeared on the show that day. He was so moved by Khoury’s story that he formed the “Don’t Mess With Todd” anti-bullying initiative to generate awareness and help raise funds for anti-bullying education.
Like Herremans, most educators have taken a zero-tolerance approach to bullying. Many area elementary schools have “No Bullying Zone” posters in the halls, telling students what to do if they’re being victimized or know someone who is.
“The posters reinforce the message that bullying is completely inappropriate and won’t be tolerated,” says Dr. Leslie Rescorla, a certified school psychologist and director of the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College. “It also serves as a reminder that all adults in the school are ready to intervene if bullying occurs. This is such an important message to give.”
The approach is part of what Rescorla calls “positive behavioral support.” “Rather than dealing with problems when they occur, you try to prevent things from happening by creating a school-wide atmosphere that encourages more positive behavior,” she says. “Often, the children who become bullies have been bullied by others. So it’s really important to protect victims and to try to intervene with those who are bullying.”
Rescorla advises parents to encourage their kids to tell them if they’re being bullied. Then contact the teacher and school psychologist or counselor.
“The more reporting of bullying and the more accountability there is, the more students won’t be able to get away with doing it,” says Rescorla. “Kids need to feel protected and safe. That’s the most important thing.”