Recognizing the warning signs for teen bullying, suicide

No wonder a recent article in the Washington Post cited bullying and abuse at home by older siblings or parents as a primary cause of school bullying.

“Domestic violence and bullying feed each other,” wrote Susan M. Swearer, an associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

According to Swearer, a 2007 study indicated that “72 percent of children who were physically abused by their parents became a bully, a victim of a bully, or both.”

Both bullies and victims are at risk for significant mental health issues, from low self-esteem to anxiety and teenage depression.

So, while bullying might serve as a triggering event, or increase a young person’s tendency for “self harm,” other risk factors also likely are involved, according to Swearer.

“Interpreting a teenager’s suicide as a reaction to bullying ignores the complex emotional problems that American youth face,” writers Swearer, author of Bullying Prevention and Intervention: Realistic Strategies for Schools and co-director of the Bullying Research Network. “To understand the complexity of suicidal behavior, we need to look beyond one factor.”

In addition to mental illness, Swearer says easy access to firearms and medication, exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, and isolation might all contribute to a child’s feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Major shifts or changes in behavior, such as isolating former friends, changing peer groups, dropping grades, and losing interest in favorite activities, should raise red flags for educators, parents, neighbors, friends, or other individuals concerned about a child’s well-being.

Other warning signs include difficulty sleeping or over-sleeping, changes in body weight or appetite, irritability, sadness, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating. Younger children might report vague physical symptoms or have more frequent emotional outbursts.

For most young people, developing resiliency and responding well to adversity represent learned skills. As such, we need to help students develop these characteristics and not simply judge them for not having them.

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