Back to School Thoughts From Your Friendly Neighborhood Child Psychiatrist

Whitney Fulton, MD

It’s August. Ready or not, the back-to-school month is here. Summer may have passed in the blink of an eye, but we are barreling quickly toward those first days back in the classroom.

Not all summers looked the same. Some kids had multiple family vacations to exotic, exciting locations. Some kids had hungry bellies and longed for the loving smiles of last year’s teachers. Some kids spent nearly every day at the ball field, chasing a ring or a trophy. Some kids spent every day in their rooms, hiding from horrors outside their doors. Some kids had family game nights and amusement park trips, and pool days. Some kids barely saw an adult all summer and had to survive on their own. Some kids spent the night with multiple different friends. Some kids moved through multiple different foster homes.

But whatever those summers looked like, every single one of those kids need the same thing when they hit those desk seats… love. They need it from their teachers, from their coaches, from their bus drivers, from their principals, but most importantly… and here is where you can help, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, guardians… they need it from their PEERS.

In my job, I am blessed to work with kids from all different backgrounds- different schools, different grades, different races, different ethnicities, different cultural backgrounds, different socioeconomic statuses, different upbringings, different guardianships, and different life experiences. I have patients from essentially every school district in the tri-state area, and the common theme I have painfully discovered unites them all is that NO CHILD is immune from bullying.

Grown-ups, we have to do better. Teachers can listen for it and intervene when they see it or hear it. Bus drivers can watch for it in those big mirrors up front. Classmates can report it when they witness unkindness. But we, as parents and guardians, have the power to STOP it. Please, talk to your kids about bullying and the effects it has on other people- loss of friendship, depression, anxiety, school avoidance, poor academic performance, substance use, and suicidality. This bullying epidemic is tearing apart our young people, but we can help stop it.

Bullying isn’t just shoving a kid down on the playground and stealing his lunch money. It’s refusing to let a child sit with you and your friends. It’s a snide remark about an off-brand T-shirt. It’s an exclusion from conversation while everyone waits for the bell to ring. It’s rude comments belittling another student to get a laugh from friends. It’s ignoring a child who is sitting by herself at recess with no one to play with. It’s teasing someone about their height, or weight, or grades, or hairstyle, or clothes, or parents, or lack of participation in a sport or club. It’s name-calling over text or video game chats. Sometimes it’s as blatant as telling another child they’re worthless, and no one likes them. The ugliness of bullying has many, many, many faces… and NONE of those should be accepted.

Tell your kids and SHOW your kids what kindness looks like. It’s a smile and hello to a new kid, and an invitation to sit down. It’s a simple compliment, an “I like your backpack”. It’s making the recess basketball teams a little bigger to include a kid who wants to learn to shoot. It’s shutting down a peer who is picking on someone else. It’s offering to help with a tricky math problem when you see someone frowning over their paper. It’s standing up for someone who deserves to get an education in a safe, welcoming environment just like everyone else. It’s acceptance and celebration of differences. It’s really the same way we want to be treated as adults.

If you read only one Back to School post this year, please make it this one. If you have only one Back to School conversation with your kids, please make it this one. There are empty seats in classrooms all across America and the world where warm bodies sat last August. Suicide rates among kids and teens are on the rise, and the morbidity associated with the results of bullying is mind-boggling. We CAN make a difference, and it starts with this talk… show up to school with LOVE.

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