Is Your Child the Victim of a Bully? Rearing Children with Compassion Can Help Curtail Violence, Teasing and Overall Bad Behavior

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Whoever said that words could never hurt you must not have been the victim of a bully's taunts.

Kenya Conley was. She was targeted by a female clique a her New York City school and still recalls how the names hurled at her by classmates cut through her self-esteem like a sharp knife. "Right away. they branded me "Mississippi,"' says Kenya, who in 2004 relocated with her family from West Point, Miss., near Jackson.

The 16-year-old 11th grader who has gorgeous cocoa-colored skin was branded "ugly" and "stupid," even though she was as at time an A student. She was mocked because of her accent and the fact she said "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am' to her teachers. While the students wore uniforms to school, shoes were a hotly contested fashion statement. "I didn't wear Timberland, I wore Thom McAn," says Kenya. "I was a loser in their eyes because I went straight home after school and I didn't hang out at night."

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Kenya's mother, Oretha Onwuegbuchulam, watched her studious daughter's grades decline to Cs, Ds and Fs. The family had relocated to Harlem because Kenya's brother Aaron, 14, had gotten a role in the Broadway production of The Lion King. "I think that Kenya felt left out," says Onwuegbuchulam. "Kenya didn't want to move from Mississippi and from the friends that she had there. She was always smart and quiet. Many times she would be darker [skinned] than the other children in the playground, and they weren't so quick to play with her [in Mississippi]. She was open prey for people to treat her bad."

Actually, Kenya has plenty of company when it comes to being bullied. The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center reports that more than 5.7 million children are victims of bullies or cliques, the exclusionary social groups that cut a child off from his or her peers.

While bullying is not new, these days it has taken on a more earnest tone than simply the kid other students feared would beat them to a pulp on the playground or after school. The seriousness of bullying received national attention after the two students responsible for the Columbine High School shootings were revealed to be social outcasts who may have been bullied. As a result, many schools have enforced a zero-tolerance policy for bullies.

However, child mental health experts are convinced that bullying has serious consequences for both the child who is the target and the bully. Many childhood bullies have at least one criminal conviction by the time they reach their 20s, according to a study, by the University of Michigan.

To combat the problem, parents must be diligent about recognizing personality and emotional changes in their children. One way is to encourage dialogue with your child about the school day. Find out what's happening on the school bus, in gym class and during lunch--places where bullies usually harass other children. Since bully behavior can begin as early as preschool, it's good for parents to encourage feedback early.

Aaron Taylor, author of The Pumpkin Goblin Makes Friends, an illustrated children's book that gives the perspective of the bully, who is portrayed as a mean-spirited creature who picks on the neighborhood children. "The book was written to help younger children see the effects of bullying," says Taylor, the father of three. "The bully is likely to grow up as traumatized as the victim."

"The outcomes for bullies mad victims are remarkably similar," says Dr. Bennett Leventhal, professor of psychiatry and director for the Center for Child Mental Health and Development Neuroscience Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We used to think that it was just the victims who struggled as the result of bullying. But in fact, the kids who are also bullies have poor grades, higher rates of depression and are more likely to have suicidal ideas and behavior. …