Bullying and teen suicide: What parents need to know

for parents, it's important to observe, talk

special to the herald-leaderNovember 23, 2013 

Unfortunately, bullying is a fairly common experience for children. In fact, bullying is probably much more prevalent than people realize. By some statistics, 10 to 35 percent of children are bullied. Some studies say as many as 50 percent of children will experience some form of bullying.

There are four basic types of bullying:

■ Physical bullying, which involves physical force, such as assault;

■ Verbal bullying such as using words for taunting or teasing;

■ Relational bullying, also known as emotional bullying, where attacks are on the emotional level;

■ Cyber bullying, a modern form of bullying which incorporates the use of technology.

In my work, I see many children who are victims of cyber bullying. Social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, make it easy for bullies to disparage others and spread rumors.

It's important for parents to talk with children about the information they post on social media and how it may make them vulnerable to a bully. Parents should also regularly monitor their child's social media accounts for safety.

Facebook will restrict inappropriate posts and users if you report them, but the information is already out there and the damage may already be done.

Bullying may be difficult to eliminate, so it's important to help children cope when it happens. It's also important to remember that both the bully and the victim need help.

If the problem is significant or escalates, get school authorities and the parents of the other children involved. Bullies need to be dealt with directly. A child who is bullying may be a victim of abuse or be dealing with other serious issues that impact their behavior.

If you think a child in your life is being bullied, here are some tips to guide your response:

■ Talk to the child to determine what is going on;

■ Ask the child what he or she thinks should be done to help the situation;

■ Seek assistance from teachers or guidance counselors;

■ Do not encourage the child to fight back. Suggest that he or she walk away and seek the help of an adult;

■ Help the child practice being assertive and what he or she can say to the bully;

■ Encourage the child to insist the bully leave them alone;

■ Encourage the child to be with friends in unsupervised areas, such as the playground or hallways at school. Children are less likely to be bullied in a group.

Bullying can lead to profound problems for children who are victims. Sometimes children will no longer want to attend school or worse, they become depressed and suicidal. Sadly, we see examples of children who commit suicide who were victims of bullying.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more teenagers and young adults die of suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.

In particular with adolescents, depression often manifests into irritable, destructive or defiant behavior.

For parents, one of the most important things to do is talk with your child if you see any signs or have even a low level of concern that a child may be depressed or suicidal.

Some parents think asking if a child is suicidal may promote the activity, but that's simply not true. Having a discussion with your child opens the door for him or her to talk about those feelings and learn how to deal with them.

If you cannot get much information from the child, seek professional help. A good place to start may be a pediatrician or school counselor, but do not hesitate to escalate the matter and seek out a mental health professional. It's important to act quickly as the situation may be life threatening.

Parents and caregivers need to intervene and get help for the child. If you are unsure of how to contact a mental health professional or have limited resources, take the child to a hospital that specializes in child and adolescent behavioral health care.

Dr. John Sullivan, is medical director at Our Lady of Peace, part of KentuckyOne Health.

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