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Dr. Mary Dobbins Counsels a Young Patient
Dr. Mary Dobbins Portrait

October 13, 2009

Child Psychiatry Team at SIU Med School Confronts Bullying

Bullying can have harmful emotional, psychological and academic effects for children and teens in Illinois regardless of where they live.  Statistics show that nearly one-third of young people in the U.S. have been involved in bullying.

“The classic example of bullying is someone who is being physically aggressive on purpose to put somebody down, embarrass them or draw attention to themselves by exerting power or influence,” says Dr. Mary I. Dobbins, assistant professor of psychiatry at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield.  “When responding to bullying, the needs of both the person doing the bullying and the person being bullied need to be considered.”

Gender plays an important role in the two types of bullying, physical and psychological.  There is a psychological component to all bullying, but girls traditionally use more psychological bullying than boys.

“These are the girls who try to exert power by embarrassing someone, starting rumors about them or excluding them from groups.  But there is certainly overlap though – boys can do psychological bullying and girls use physical actions,” adds Dobbins, who is also on the staff at St. John’s Children’s Hospital in Springfield.

Bullying is very prominent during middle school which she explains relates to the stage that these children are at developmentally.

“A common theme behind bullying is kids don’t feel very competent,” says Dobbins.  “It seems backwards, but the aggressive kids are the ones who are insecure, which is why they are aggressive.  They are trying to prove that they have power and can get attention.”

Without proper attention, these young bullies and the children they bully can develop more serious disorders such as conduct disorder, domestic abuse and anti-social behaviors.

Contrary to popular belief, children in rural communities and schools are just as affected by bullying as those in urban communities with their heavily populated classrooms.  Dobbins sees this in her own practice at SIU.

“In smaller schools, kids have less ability to move within groups.  In a bigger school if the situation is uncomfortable, students can move away into different groups and situations to avoid bullies because there are more students and more things going on,” she says.

With technology reaching the hands of children earlier, a new phenomenon called “cyber bullying” has developed with threatening messages, sensitive personal information or vulgar images distributed via emails, text messaging, blogs or chat rooms.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents talk with their child about cyber bullying, review the child’s Web activity and install a parental control device on the home computer to filter and track activity.  Other tips can be found on their site www.aap.org.

Dobbins recommends that electronics be used in a room where family members are around and turn them off well before bedtime.  “The edgy stuff tends to happen when no one else is present and kids say and do things that they normally would not do,” she adds.

Some common signs that a child may be a victim of bulling include a decrease in appetite or sleep, fear of going to school, falling grades, unexplained cuts and bruises, physical ailments such as stomach and headaches, or a depressed mood or low self-esteem.

Various methods of coping can be used such as supporting a child by sharing concern and care, increasing their social skills and self-competence, diffusing the situation with humor and avoiding a certain group or person.  (See accompanying side bar.)  Also, parents can teach children to try to resolve the situation on their own.

Treatment or therapy is appropriate in certain cases for both the bully and the victim, but after coping strategies have first been attempted.  “Repetitive bullying cases are when therapy is really helpful.  Maybe the child has tried to handle the situation but it is now out of their control,” explains Dobbins.

Primary care physicians can help families by screening for bullying problems and counseling children and parents during regular health checkups.  Most physicians are educated in violence-prevention and can identify and refer patients with aggressive or violent behavior.

“A lot of this starts with the kids and their normal development.  Primary care physicians can be very alert to this and help nip things in the bud by promoting a preventative approach so the kids are healthy and resilient.” says Dobbins.

SIU’s Division of Child Psychiatry uses outreach programs, lectures and individual patient care to educate, inform and assist parents, teachers, children and other health care professionals about bullying.  For further information visit the Web site for the Department of Psychiatry at www.siumed.edu/psych or call SIU’s child psychiatry division at 217-545-6900.

What parents should do if their child is being bullied:
Encourage your child to tell another adult.
Advise your child to stay in a group when they are fearful.
Teach your child how to safely stand up to the bully.
Help your child join clubs to meet other kids.
Ask your child to not reply to online bullying or erase inappropriate messages or pictures.Set the cell phone or computer to block incoming messages from a cyber bully.
Notify the parents of the bully and ask for their cooperation.
Inform school officials such as the teacher, principal and coaches about the issue.