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The findings may not come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s been through grade school. Still, the numbers are depressing. A new study to be published in the June issue of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal Pediatrics reports that obese grade-school kids are 63 percent more likely to be bullied than those of average or below average weight, regardless of their gender, race, or social skills.
Of course, bullying isn’t limited to overweight children, as the tragic case of Phoebe Prince proved: The slim teen committed suicide earlier this year in South Hadley, Mass. after enduring repeated taunts by a group of female classmates. But overweight and obese kids are a particularly vulnerable population to bullies, and a growing one. Obesity rates among kids continue to climb, to more than 16 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds, according to the most recent government estimates. Yet it’s often difficult for parents to recognize the problem, as victims may remain mum about bullying because they’re ashamed or because they think they deserve it, say experts. (The Pediatrics study, which involved 821 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 11, found a quarter of the study kids reported being bullied, while mothers reported 45 percent of them had been bullied.) “The victim of bullying typically experiences intense shame,” says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character.
So how can you spot the warning signs and prevent long-term damage? Here’s how to tell if your child is a victim— and how to best respond.
Disliking school. Something is going on if your kid suddenly doesn’t want to go to class. She may want to avoid a bully. “Children, when they feel humiliated, try to run away from the situation—which is human nature,” says Berger.
Bullying others. Have you noticed you child teasing other kids? Bullies and victims can be the same person (think Columbine.) “A man is yelled at by his boss at work, and he is afraid to yell back at the boss. What does he do? He comes home and yells at his wife. The wife is afraid to yell at her husband, so what does she do? She yells at the child. It flows downhill,” says Berger.
Appearing listless, withdrawn and irritable. Understandably, victims don’t feel lively and sociable. “It’s a self-esteem issue,” says Berger. “Wanting to withdraw and zone out might be a typical way of a child responding.”
Overeating. Some kids may seek solace in food. “It’s a reliable way of making you feel good—in the short term,” says Berger. But it may make the problem worse over the long term.
Don’t brush it off. Bullying can make kids feel tense, afraid, lonely, anxious, depressed—and even suicidal. “Blowing it off as normal childhood behavior is not the answer,” says Dr. Joseph Wright, author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy on bullying prevention. Explain that bullying is not normal or acceptable. “Assure the child that the bullying is outrageous, that it is not the child’s fault, and that naturally the child deserves to be treated with respect at all times by everyone,” says Berger.
Treat “fat” as an off-limits “F” word. “The word ‘fat’ has so many negative connotations,” says pediatrician Julie Lumeng, lead author of this week’s Pediatrics study. “It’s not appropriate to use that word to criticize other kids.” Unfortunately, she says, “People view overweight or obese people as lazy, not having willpower.” Explain to kids that genetics plays a role: some people are born with a lower metabolism and a greater predisposition to eat when they’re not hungry; that doesn’t make them lazy.
Closely monitor (or even nix) email and Facebook accounts. Cyber bullying is a growing problem. According to i-SAFE, a non-profit foundation, 42 percent of kids have been bullied while online and 35 percent of kids have been threatened online (1 in 5 have had it happen more than once). Lumeng says school administrators have begun warning parents about the dangers of social networking.
Devote more time to your child. “If you are trying to get your child to be more complete and truthful about what’s happening at school, that isn’t going to happen out of the blue,” says Berger. “And a child who feels secure and appreciated and confident because they know that they’re the apple of the parent’s eye is often less likely to be persistently bullied.”
Encourage zero tolerance in your school. Sometimes kids remain silent because they see that teachers and principals don’t take action. Schools need awareness and prevention programs “supported by consequences,” says Wright. Tell school administrators about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Stop Bullying Now program.
Tell the teacher. Unless school officials know about the bullying, a child will continue to be victimized, says Wright. Don’t immediately go over the teacher’s head to the principal. “I would go at it in a stepwise manner,” says Berger. “If this is something that happened among fifth graders in Mrs. Green’s class, I would go to Mrs. Green first. If Mrs. Green isn’t up to the task, then you can go to the principal.” But if the bullying involves a legal matter, go to the police.
Call a doctor. Typically psychiatrists advise getting help from a therapist after two weeks of symptoms. But if you are worried your child might attempt suicide, call a doctor immediately. (Signs include losing interest in activities he used to like, changing moods dramatically, behaving recklessly, talking about suicide and expressing feelings of worthlessness.)
Bike, walk or play tennis together. “Exercise is a helpful antidepressant,” says Berger. “It can’t hurt to get a kid out moving.” Doing a sport together is a healthy way to spend more quality time together and strengthen family bonds, too.
Encourage your child to speak up. Explain that by doing so, he may help prevent other kids from being bullied in the future, says Berger. “This helps a victim psychologically to know they can do something public spirited.”
Address what the child is being bullied about. If kids are teasing your daughter about her weight, exercise together and serve healthier meals. And if kids are teasing your son about being a nerd, track down a math group where your numbers whiz can shine, says Berger. Or sign a child up for a volunteer activity so he will feel useful and appreciated.
Read about different kinds of kids. Curl up with books that celebrate kids with special qualities—whether if they have buck teeth (Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon, by Patty Lovell) or unusual names and habits (Odd Velvet, by Mary Whitcomb and Gooney Bird Greene, by Lois Lowry). Help your child recognize what’s special about him or her, and celebrate it.
Finally: Let your child know he, or she, is loved. It’s the best medicine of all.
Video: Gail Saltz MD: How to Handle Cyber Bullies