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Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

What's the Difference Between Bullying and Teasing?

Know the signs so your child won't be a victim.

Summer fun is over. Time for bullies to return to your child's school and make your LGBT child's life a living hell. And don't expect the school to resolve this ubiquitous problem alone.

Psychiatrist Jonathan Tobkes points out that even if parents don't have the shared experience of being gay and in this "out group," it doesn't mean that you can not develop a radar for discovering whether this is going on and help your child to combat bullying.

To do this, know the difference between teasing and bullying. The definition of tease is "to make fun of somebody, either playfully or maliciously, deliberately among somebody or irritate a person or an animal to persuade somebody by coaxing." For example, in third grade, I was skinny, had dark hair, and a mole on my nose. Some classmates called me "Wesley the Witch." That was teasing.

Bullying is "intimidation of a weaker person, the process of intimidating or mistreating somebody weaker or in more vulnerable situation." In fourth grade, Andy Foote ran after me in the classroom with a pencil in his hand. He later stabbed me with that pencil in my arm. That was bullying.

Some of the side effects of bullying to look out for include:

  • sudden resistance to go to school.
  • a decrease in making social plans after school or on the weekends.
  • feigning illness to avoid school and other events.
  • recurrent damage to or loss of property or clothes.
  • has the child had some mood changes?
  • Does your child seem depressed, less communicative, not hungry or eating all the time.
  • Is he withdrawing from family activities or general interests he loves?
  • Is the child becoming insecure showing a low self-esteem and worthlessness?

Now that your radar is working, it's time to help your child devise a plan to feel safe. Ask the child about what's going on in school. Assure him that being a bullying victim is not his fault. Some children are scared if they speak up against the bully that it will only ignite the flames. Says Tobkes, "many children will feel humiliated and ashamed and think they have brought it on themselves." Whatever you do, do not blame the child for being bullied." Tell your child to come to you right away if anyone is making disparaging remarks or threats," he advises.

How do you get the child to open up?

  • Listen and focus on him. It's important for a child to know that their home, school, community will want to protect him. Emphasize that bullying should not be tolerated. Every student should be educated in an atmosphere that makes them safe.
  • Brainstorm with him about ways to keep safe such as altering their route home so that an adult is always present.
  • Do not call the parents of the bully. It could backfire on your child. Let the school mediate.
  • Role play with the child. Pretend you're the bully and have your child develop pat answers.
  • Model good behavior.

How do you gain school cooperation?

  • Schedule a meeting with the appropriate supervisor to discuss the situation. Sometimes, the supervisor isn't even aware of bullying. The chain of command is: first contact the teacher, the guidance counselor, then principal, and lastly, the superintendent, if needed.
  • Find out if your state protects against bullying because of sexual orientation.
  • Try to maintain open communication between school organizations such as PTA and yourself. Discuss the change that need to be arranged. However, do not single out the child. Changes should be made by others, for example, changing classrooms or buses.
  • Know the limitations of the school. What is the Zero Tolerance policy for the school? Do they have a Gay-Straight Alliance? If schools have extra-curricular clubs, they must allow GSA groups.
  • School law forbids school personnel about speaking about discipline, consequences or services given to other children.
  • Know that Federal civil rights laws do not cover harassment based on sexual orientation. Bullying toward LGBT youth target their non-conformity to gender norms. Under Title IX, this may be considered sexual harassment.

It takes time to stop bullying. Be persistent.

"Parents are the most effect deterrent to bullying," Tobkes stresses. "I have found that the most important prognostic indicator for a child being targeted for his sexuality is having a safe haven retreat at home."

About the Author
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

Wesley C. Davidson is a journalist who researches straight parents of LGBT children. Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. is a psychiatrist in New York and supervises residents at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

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