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Triage for the Bullied Child -- Guidelines for Parents

If you're a parent, here are some guidelines on the two types of bullied students, the danger signs of a child in crisis, and how to avoid the most common mistake parents make and perform effective triage.
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As a former victim of bullying who travels the nation's schools sharing her story to motivate awareness, I meet many distraught parents who want advice on how to help their bullied, ostracized child. I ache for them because I remember what my own mom and dad went through never knowing from one day to the next what kind of shape I'd be in when I got home from school.

If you're a parent, here are some guidelines on the two types of bullied students, the danger signs of a child in crisis, and how to avoid the most common mistake parents make and perform effective triage:

• The first is the overtly bullied child who's bullied by his/her classmates in obvious ways such as teasing, taunting, verbal and physical assault, intentional and aggressive exclusion, being laughed at and put down constantly, gossiped about, cyber-bullied, among other forms of targeted, personalized cruelty.

• The second type is what I call the "invisible student," the kid who may not be bullied per se, but who's treated as if he/she doesn't exist, who isn't necessarily intentionally excluded, but who no one thinks to include in anything either.

This is the child who goes through school feeling like a ghost in his/her own life. Being an "invisible student" is sometimes more damaging in the long-term because if you're overtly bullied, you can say to yourself, "there's something wrong with them," whereas if you feel like you don't exist, you may falsely conclude, "there's something wrong with me." For many kids, that conclusion will stick with them their whole lives. That's one of bullying's biggest dangers -- its effect on adulthood.

The danger signs of a child in crisis -- some are obvious and exactly what you'd probably expect. Others are subtle... and surprising. Outlined below is what you should be alert to:

* Inexplicable fits of rage -- does your child blow up at the least provocation?

* Over-reaction to normal, daily frustrations -- does your child over-react to people and situations that never would have bothered him/her before?

* Faking illness to avoid going to school or making themselves sick.

* Impaired immune system -- frequent illness -- the constant stress and sadness associated with severe bullying can weaken your child's immune system -- this coupled with a child's wishing him/herself sick to get out of school can be a powerful combination.

* Extreme make-over attempts -- has your child suddenly gone from preppy attire to all "gothic" or "punk?"

* Sudden change in weight -- has your child started gaining or losing weight at an alarming rate?

* Despondency or depression -- is your child sad, lonely, unmotivated?

* Change in grades -- has your child's grades gone down, or way up (bullied kids sometimes immerse themselves in academics as an escape, and then when they realize that even with straight A's, they're still lonely, they can spiral into a dark place)?

* Desperate attempts to win friends -- has your child began succumbing to peer pressure, perhaps engaging in questionable or self-destructive behaviors he/she would never have considered doing before?

* Moodiness -- is your child sullen one moment, obstinate the next?

* Distractedness -- is your child unfocused and preoccupied?

Common mistakes parents make and effective triage for a bullied child: The bullied child is bleeding emotionally and spiritually from the loneliness and isolation and if you don't deal with that first, it could render whatever else you do, tragically irrelevant. One of the worst, not necessarily mistakes, but oversights parents make is that they become so caught up in mitigating the problem -- contacting the school, confronting the parents of the bullies, pushing for punishment of the bullies, talking to the police, retaining legal counsel -- that they forget to perform triage on their bleeding child. Your first priority is to find a new social outlet for your child, someplace where he/she can engage in an organized activity with other kids the same age and forge meaningful friendships completely outside of school. It will buy you the time you need to deal with the larger issues mentioned above; give your child something to look forward to; and boost your child's confidence. The more confident a child is, the less of a target he/she will be at school. Additionally, bullied students often emit a subtle desperation for friendship that makes their peers uncomfortable. Once your son or daughter begins building new relationships, it can diminish some of that desperation and lead to positive results with classmates. Park districts, dance studios, community theater programs, local public libraries, and chambers of commerce are good places to start.

And remember, remain patient with your child and yourself. Healing is a process not a single event. It takes love and time but you and your child will get through this. I'm here if you need me. Just email me at