F. Birchman / MSNBC.com
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/22/2004 8:00:50 PM ET 2004-04-23T00:00:50

What's the best way to handle a bully? And how can a parent get a child to stop thumb-sucking? Columnist Victoria Clayton answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? Send it to us at childrenshealth@feedback.msnbc.com. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I have a sweet and sensitive 11-year-old boy who has been the target of bullying. We live in a small rural town with a school district that is short on resources. For three years I took him out of this school district and sent him to another school in a nearby town. The bullying did not occur at that school. But last year at the end of the school year my son asked to go back to the school in our town so that he could be with his friends. The first few months of the year went OK, but now the bullying cycle has begun again.

He is increasingly more miserable and has started to get into trouble in school. I know first-hand the damage that bullying can do to a child's self-esteem. I think it is incredibly destructive. This school district does not do a good job of controlling this behavior. I plan to have a talk with the school principal and the guidance counselor. In the meantime, I am hoping that you can refer me to a good program about bullying for schools. This district certainly needs one and I am willing to introduce the school to the idea.

A: Bullying, which can include physical violence, threats, taunting or even spreading rumors, has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years with so many accounts of bullied kids retaliating and demonstrating shocking violence at school. Tragically, however, it continues to be a problem that many schools are not addressing adequately, according to Dr. Howard Spivak, director of the Center for Children at Tufts University.

“We accept more violent behavior in this country than any other country would allow,” says Spivak.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, almost one-third of kids in sixth through tenth grades across the United States admitted on an anonymous questionnaire that they’d been involved in bullying issues, either as the victim or as the bully.

“Incredibly destructive” is a good way to describe bullying’s impact. “We know that kids who are bullied have higher rates of depression, lower self-esteem and they’re more likely to miss school,” explains Susan Limber, associate director of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University. Most serious, they report more suicidal thoughts.

A good place to go for help is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ new Web site: stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov. There you’ll find information on bullying, as well as recommendations for comprehensive, research-supported programs to introduce to your school.

Parents should never try to deal with their children's bullies on their own, experts say. Think back to that episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Mr. Brady confronts a bully who's giving one of his kids a hard time. He returned home to show Mrs. Brady a big fat shiner.

Strategies such as confronting the bully or his or her parents will likely exacerbate the problem. "It's important to try to create a positive process around it in terms of helping the kid who is getting bullied feel better but also dealing with trying to understand what's going on with the kid or kids who are doing the bullying," says Spivak.

In short, both parties need help. And the happiest results come when they get it from counselors, therapists or other school officials who have been trained in handling this serious issue.

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What about just removing your child from the school? "Taking your child out of the situation is reasonable as a last resort, but I'd strongly advise only doing it with the advice of a therapist or someone who can help do it in a way where your child doesn't feel like a failure," Spivak says.

One last thought: if you don’t get results by going to the principal and guidance counselors, try your school board and PTA. You may also appeal to your pediatrician to advocate on your behalf with the school. Your effort may not only save your child but also every child who comes after him or her.

Brielle McClain, a 12-year-old student at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., who is a student advisor to the Health and Human Services campaign puts it well: “The worst is when a parent or teacher tells the kid to suck it up or that this will make him stronger or whatever. It doesn’t. Parents and schools have to take action.”

Too old for thumb-sucking
Q:  My son is 8 years old and has a habit of thumb-sucking. Slapping and threatening hasn't helped. Is there any remedy? I am really worried about him.

A: Thumb-sucking is a natural and normal way for very young children to soothe and comfort themselves, says Kathleen Kiely Gouley, associate director of the Institute for Children at Risk at New York University's Child Study Center. Most children outgrow it by age 4 or so but roughly 3 to 5 percent of kids continue.

It’s understandable that you’re concerned; kids who suck their thumbs are often teased by other children and, when the habit persists and is severe, thumb-sucking may cause a problem with the bite or tooth alignment.

But punishment isn’t the answer. If you do this, the habit usually persists longer because you become locked in a power struggle with your child.

Gouley offers a healthier plan for curbing your child's desire. First, observe your son and determine when he sucks his thumb. It may be at times when he’s trying to calm down or cope with stress, change and uncertainty. Try showing him other strategies, such as listening to music, reading a book, cuddling with a favorite toy or even just getting extra hugs from you so he feels connected and safe.

If he seems to be sucking at times when he’s merely bored, Gouley recommends trying to replace the habit with a more adaptive behavior -– painting, arts and crafts, and cooking are good bets because they keep the hands busy. “Plus if he gets active in something that uses the hands such as cooking he isn’t going to want his hands to be callused and yucky when he’s making a meal for someone,” she says.

It’s important, of course, to strongly encourage this new activity. Positive rewards for not sucking can also help. For example, if he sucks his thumb while he watches television, you could make a deal with your son that for every two hours he doesn’t suck his thumb while watching the tube he’ll receive a gold star. When he’s earned five stars he might get a new book or other reward.

If your son desperately wants to stop but finds that the habit is so engrained he’s having trouble, you may try putting vinegar or special polish made for nail biters on his thumb, which tastes horrible.

Another idea is to visit your child’s dentist. According to Paul Reggiardo, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, there are retainers and other dental appliances that make thumb-sucking all but impossible or at least not so enjoyable.

“For some children, placement of a dental appliance actually comes as a welcome relief," he says. "They want to stop the habit but they don’t know how. This helps.”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California.

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