Remembering Phoebe Prince: The High Cost of Bullying
By Evelyn Resh
April 06, 2010
The recent tragedy in Massachusetts serves as a poignant reminder to parents to remain aware of what's happening to children across America. Whether you are worried your child is being bullied or bullying someone else, Evelyn Resh explains what to look for and how to handle it before it happens to someone you love.
Burying a child, especially when the cause of death was entirely preventable, is one of life's immeasurable sorrows. The recent suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts, is an example of one such tragedy. After months of emotional and physical abuse from classmates, this heartbroken young girl saw no alternative but to end her life. This tells me that, for her, life was unbearable and hopeless.
As a healthcare provider, sexuality counselor to teens and parent to a teenage girl, the facts of Phoebe's life and the reality of bullying that goes on among teens, sadly, do not come as a surprise. Every day, girls and boys in grades K–12 are doing their best to manage with an onslaught of nonstop, unchecked emotional and physical abuse. Some of you might be wondering why these victims don't say something to a teacher, parent or school administrator. The fact is they do, but the adults they talk to often don't take them seriously enough.
The idea that kids make these things up is, for the most part, untrue. In the absence of psychological illness, kids—including melodramatic teen girls—do not invent experiences of stalking, harassment or sexual violence. Without a believing and compassionate listener and advocate, the effects of bullying and sexual violence will linger and can lead to promiscuity, drug abuse, self-harming behaviors and depression—just a few of the potential consequences.
Parents who start to notice their child is withdrawing from activities or socializing opportunities, is unusually quiet, frequently complains of illness, cries easily or talks about being afraid to go to school need to investigate what their kid's life is actually like. And if your kid tells you she's being teased, do not underestimate the report of the torture. Talk with her teachers and counselors—ask them what they're seeing. If the school does not have a no tolerance policy when it comes to bullying, take your kid out of that school until the situation has been fully investigated and resolved. This may seem like a drastic measure, but I assure you it isn't. In my opinion, anything that seriously risks the mental and physical health of your children is reason enough to remove them from that environment. And, for goodness' sake, do not tell your kids to "toughen up," "take it like a man" or "give it right back to them." This advice is absurd, dangerous and does not address the real problem. Bullying—including sexual harassment and intimate-partner violence—is a crime against the body, psyche and soul. Telling your kids to stand up and take it is akin to assuring them that sustaining a bullet wound is simply a matter of will. Just because the wounds from bullying and sexual violence aren't easily seen doesn't mean they are any less hazardous.
How to talk to a bully or bullying victim
And then there's the other end of the spectrum: You may discover that you're harboring a bully in your home. This is something no parent wants to face, yet it's a real possibility. If you receive a call from school telling you that your child has been suspended for harassing a classmate, don't jump to the conclusion that this can't be true. Confront her, but be prepared for her to flap around like a fish on deck and blame everyone else. Regardless of her side of the story, don't minimize the seriousness of the accusation. Listen to the details. Then closely examine what goes on in your own home. Bullying isn't a congenital defect; it's learned behavior.
Only parents and other adults in charge of programs that serve kids and teens can prevent and correct bullying. Adults are responsible for teaching that clothing choices, physical features, manner of speech or sexual activity is no excuse to pick on others. And we must make a commitment to creating environments with a zero-tolerance policy for acts of bullying, harassment or sexual violence. In order to accomplish this, we first need to educate ourselves about the prevalence and severity of the problem and then keep a watchful eye on our kids.
If you come to find that your child is bullying someone, let her know, in no uncertain terms, that this is unacceptable and find ways to make her accountable for her behavior. And if your kid tells you that other kids are picking on her at school and making her day a living hell, give her the benefit of the doubt and listen attentively. Take what she says seriously and make sure she knows you care. We all need to work together to end the behaviors that led Phoebe Prince and others like her to make a tragic and irrevocable choice.
Evelyn Resh is director of sexuality and relationships programming for Miraval Resorts in Tucson. She is a certified sexuality counselor and nurse-midwife and continues her practice in both fields in Tucson and western Massachusetts. She has taken care of teens and women of all ages in the OB-GYN and primary care settings for more than 20 years and specializes in working with women 25 and under. She is also the mother of a 19-year-old daughter. Resh speaks all over the nation on topics related to women's health and sexual satisfaction and is the author of the new bookThe Secret Lives of Teen Girls: What Your Mother Wouldn't Talk About but Your Daughter Needs to Knowpublished by Hay House Publishers.