National Post

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Saturday, August 07, 1999

Schoolyard bullies are victims, too: researchers
Prone to suicidal thoughts

Brad Evenson
National Post

OTTAWA - Spare a thought for the schoolyard tough guy, say researchers, because bullies are depressed and more prone to serious thoughts of suicide than their victims.

The school bully also suffers more frequently from backaches, nervousness, lack of sleep and headaches, according to separate studies published in today's British Medical Journal.

"Bullies are more likely to dislike school and to engage in behaviours that compromise their health, such as smoking and drinking alcohol to excess," a team of Australian researchers wrote.

"Bullying others may be one of a cluster of behavioural problems."

Until recently, most behavioural research looked at the impact of bullying on victims. Now, scientists believe that the tough guys may need the most help.

A Finnish study that looked at verbal and physical bullying among 16,410 high school students found that girls who either bully or were victims had higher rates of severe suicidal thoughts than normal. But among males, only the bullies had such thoughts frequently.

The researchers also found that bullies were often rejected by their peers and felt isolated.

While victims are usually chosen at random by their tormentors, bullying appears to be an inevitable result of upbringing.

"In bullies' families, more emotional distance between family members, a lack of warmth and inconsistent discipline for the children has been noted," the Finnish researchers wrote.

As a result, the psychiatrists who treat bullies do not usually see them until someone outside the family notices a problem.

"Victims are the ones that come for help," says Dr. Philip Cheifitz, clinical director of the Children's Mental Health Centre in Ottawa.

"They're the ones who are upset. The bully doesn't call up and ask for help. And his parents only call up when the school calls. That's the only time."

"Otherwise, we don't see these kids."

Dr. Cheifitz, who treats violent children, says the pattern is remarkably uniform.

"A bully has been bullied, usually by his father, rarely by his mother, sometimes his grandfather," he says.

"Often, where the [psychiatrist] is confused is when the child is in a very nice environment and the parents complain 'I don't understand why he's getting thrown out of school, why he's a nasty child.'

"And what you find out when you do more questioning and you've got more trust is that somebody in the past has been bullied and hurt or abused."

However, Dr. Cheifitz said bullying can be cured if the family -- especially the bully's father -- agrees to treatment.

"In an 11-year-old with a father who's present who acknowledges his own past, I would say you want to see the family every two or three weeks for six months, and if you're doing it right you should see some changes."

But not every child with a rough streak needs to see a psychiatrist.

Dale Patterson runs the Royal Ottawa Hospital summer treatment program for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, known in psychiatric circles as Canada's only treatment camp for bullies, because children with ADHD are often violent.

Ms. Patterson says that when a child at the camp hits another, he must serve a 10-minute "time out" penalty. Teasing and other bullying earns demerit points, which may lead to a loss of privileges.

"The key is to be consistent, and not to give in," she says.

"But you have to take a balanced approach. When you catch the child doing good behaviour [we] give them positive feedback. If you pay attention to them doing the good things, they're less likely to exhibit the negative ones."

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