The documentary “Bully,” which comes to Boston theaters on Friday, portrays the all-too common scenario of kids getting brutalized by their peers at school with their parents none the wiser. For one 12-year-old boy with Asperger’s, the school bus became a torture chamber: He repeatedly had his head bashed into seats, was stabbed with pencils, and had his life threatened.
When his parents were shown the film footage, they were shocked since their son hadn’t opened up to them about the bullying and relieved, in some way, to finally understand the reason for his severe depression.
“The biggest problem with bullying is that adults don’t know it’s happening,” said Dr. Peter Raffalli, director of the Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative at Children’s Hospital Boston. “It happens very covertly, and it’s a challenge to detect.”
Children with medical issues like diabetes, Tourette syndrome, and autism are more likely to be bullied, Raffalli said, as are those who don’t conform to the “norm” because they’re gay, overweight, shorter than average, or extremely shy.
Those subjected to abuse from their peers may not reveal their torment to their parents or teachers, but they often display hallmark signs such as a change in mood or sleep patterns, withdrawal from friends or family members, or the sudden onset of physical symptoms like stomach pain or headaches.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians screen for bullying during well visits and has even provided online tools to help doctors and parents ask the right questions.
“I used to ask if any stress was going on in their life,” said Raffalli, who’s a pediatrician. “But it wasn’t until I specifically asked if anyone at school was being mean that I started getting real answers.”
Nearly all states, including Massachusetts, have laws in place that require schools to take action against bullies and set up specific definitions to distinguish bullying from peer fights where both kids are on pretty equal footing. Bullying needs to be repetitive and from a consistent source like one child or a group of children; it also involves dominant children against those who don’t have the ability to adequately defend themselves and is mean-spirited, intending to cause a victim emotional or physical distress.
“It’s really a form of abuse,” Raffalli said, “that can cause anxiety, low self esteem, a decline in school performance, and even in extreme circumstances psychotic symptoms like hallucinations, suicidality, or an increase in homidical thinking.”
Preliminary research also suggests that bullying can cause detrimental changes on children’s brains that may leave them more likely to be anxious, depressed or even violent adults.
At Children’s Hospital, specialists provided coordinated care to both those who are bullied and those doing the bullying to determine causes and solutions specific to the individual children. Those with neurodevelopmental problems, for instance, may need help with developing social skills to help them communicate better with their peers, according to Raffalli.
Regardless of the circumstances, parents can help kids deal with bullying by telling them to do the following:
1. Don’t fight bullying with bullying. It can just incite a bully further to tease or taunt when, say, an older sibling is around.
2. But don’t expect to just tough it out. Adults need to be aware and involved. Every school must have a protocol in place to deal with bullying, and parents need to make sure their child’s teachers and school administrators are following that protocol. “Bullies won’t stop if they get the impression that adults don’t care,” said Raffalli.
3. Find a safe person in school. Children should find someone they can turn to when they’re getting bullied such as a school nurse, teacher, guidance counselor or gym coach. That person can help document what’s happening and also serve as a liaison to school administrators.
4. Stick with high traffic areas in school. Bullies tend to seek out victims in quieter places like stairwells, bathrooms, or hallways without a lot of foot traffic. Staying in crowded places could help improve safety, as can having a buddy to go to the bathroom with.
5. Look for comfort in friends and family outside of school. “Quality time spent with friends and family outside of school can help bolster children’s self esteem,” said Raffalli. “They need these positive and happy experiences.”