For Abigail Niehaus, 5th grade was a study in misery. Bullied by another girl in her class, Niehaus also felt she couldn’t count on any adults for help.
“Adults sometimes don't see the way kids treat each other as bullying,” Neihaus said, “but it is hurtful and affects them outside of school.”
Now a confident, 16-year-old Hilliard Darby High School junior, Niehaus said as a 5th grader she was passive and eager to be accepted — and a prime target for the girl who called her names, teased her and deliberately excluded her from the girl’s social circle. Niehaus became withdrawn and her academic performance suffered.
“It really impacts the child's view of themselves, and their sense of self-worth declines,” said child therapist Susan Steinman, who consults with the Bexley school district. “That's why it's important to get a grip on this early, because it does have a deep and potentially long-lasting effect on development.”
Despite increased attention to anti-bullying programs in many schools, victims often feel the adults around them don't take their problems seriously.
“When kids are interviewed about this, they don't have a lot of confidence that adults know what is going on and can effectively help,” said Steinman. “Schools need to change that.”
Niehaus said, that, although her mother was supportive, her teachers were not. Eventually, with the support of her friends, Niehaus stood up for herself.
“I had to change my demeanor, and I didn't act so scared of her,” said Niehaus. “After that, it stopped.”
Awareness is key for parents. Watch for sudden changes in children's behavior — reluctance to go to school or ride the bus, or changes in their social circle. If children are unwilling to talk about the issue, they might open up to another adult.
“Tip off the pediatrician, or reach out to the youth minister or the clergy,” said Mark Real, president and CEO of kidsohio.org, a public-education advocacy organization. “Kids are sometimes more frank with adults other than their parents.”
If there is a problem, alert the teacher and principal, and work together to resolve it. Addressed quickly and responsibly, victims of bullying (and even their bullies) can learn and grow from the experience.
That was the case with Niehaus, who has created her own anti-bullying program, Create Peace. She now gives bullying-awareness presentations to elementary-school students.
Niehaus said that parents should "be aware of the signs that your child is being bullied.
“Kids just need support,” she explained. “Parents shouldn't be afraid to take that extra step.”