In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince came home from school and hanged herself.
The recent immigrant from Ireland had evidently been subjected to relentless harassment and various types of bullying from schoolmates for at least four months before her suicide. While the case has received plenty of attention, and nine teens are facing criminal charges for their hateful actions, it's too late for Phoebe.
Experts say bullying can be triggered by a desire to seem cool or to assert social dominance. It can also be a mask for low self-esteem and a need for approval.
Bullying and signs of bullying may start at home; in any case, if your child is mean to others at school, he or she is likely to take it out on siblings, as well.
Ronald Mah, an expert on bullying and bullied children, and author of Getting Beyond Bullying and Exclusion, agrees that family dynamics help breed bullies and their victims.
"Some kids are bullies because there's intimidation in the household. Some people are likely to become victims if there's victimization in the family or from people outside. Avoidance, denial, co-dependent behavior all becomes part of it." If this sounds familiar, family therapy may be a good idea.
He says American culture is partly to blame — not only the generally hostile tone of much music and movies, but also a focus on excellence and achievement that ignores the greater good.
"There are three core things parents should help their children develop: a positive sense of self, including sense of excellence about who and what they want to be; a strong work ethic; and a sense of responsibility to others and the community. If you have the first two, you can still be a jerk," he says.
The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) encourages parents to talk with teens about bullying before there's a problem. They recommend three ways to approach the discussion:
General, open-ended inquiry: "Is anything going on at school or online with your friends or classmates that you want to talk about?" If the child seems hesitant to open up, don't force the issue.
Share a personal story: "When I was on high school..." Parents can relate with their child and encourage a conversation by telling a story about a time when they were bullied at school or at work.
Direct inquiry: "Are you being bullied?"
CAMFT notes that some teens may be reluctant to talk with their parents about bullying or types of bullying they may see or experience. They might be embarrassed, afraid of the repercussions of telling someone or simply uncomfortable talking about it. You can enlist the help of another adult, such as an aunt or uncle, teacher, pastor or counselor, if your teen would be more likely to open up. A number of schools also have peer counseling groups that can be helpful.
You may be tempted to teach your kid tactics for coping better with the teasing — anything from learning to play the dozens right back to fisticuffs. While acquiring such social skills may be beneficial for all teens, it's not the right move in a situation where your child is being actively bullied, according to Mah.
"You're implying that it's his fault," he says. "The message is, 'You're the one who's causing this to happen and not responding correctly.'"
Instead, he advises you to complain to the school's administration — and keep complaining until you get action. Don't be surprised if they try to blow you off or act as if you're creating the problem. You may need to bring in your lawyer or at least threaten litigation.
Mah says, "Unfortunately, it's convenient for the school to let things go. You have to be a really assertive advocate for your child."
To find out how schools and communities are working to stop bullying, read Fighting Back at Bullies.