Longevity Part I: Breaking down early childhood bullying


Free micro-event:

5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday, at Glenwood Springs Library second floor classroom

"Issues facing young children"

With Oyen Hoffman of Mountain Family Health Centers


Wednesday, Aug. 21

Teens and Young Adults: Coping with pressure


“Striking a Conversation: Mental Health for All Ages”

Presented by Renew Senior Communities and Connect For Health Colorado

About the Longevity Project:

Annually, the Post Independent takes a deep dive on a health issue with a mixture of reporting and events. The topic of this year’s Longevity Series is “Striking a Conversation: Mental Health for All Ages.” Through this process, the PI via a four-part series will examine mental health issues and solutions for different age ranges, including: youth, teens to young adult, middle age, and seniors.

In addition to reporting, the PI and the Longevity sponsors will be conducting several “micro-events” addressing specific age ranges, as well as a final event  the evening of Sept. 17 in which mental health comedian Frank King will present on his path and ways to strike a conversation about mental health.

During the course of her 20-year career as an educator, Audrey Hazleton has had plenty of difficult phone calls with parents.

“It’s just as hard to get a phone call that your child has hurt someone as it is that your child has been hurt,” said Hazleton, the Glenwood Springs Elementary School principal. “In fact, it might be even harder to get the call that your child hurt somebody.

“It’s really hard to hear that your child hasn’t been kind to another child. It goes really deep.”

At the elementary school level, professionals like Hazleton find themselves explaining to parents the difference between a child acting “mean” and one who is participating in full-fledged bullying.

“That’s really important in parent education is helping parents understand the difference, so that we can help parents help their kids,” Hazleton said.

A young child who gets bullied may end up suffering from severe mental distress ranging from feeling alone to depression and more — both in the moment or later in life. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as any unwanted aggressive behavior that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance.

“Bullying is ongoing, it doesn’t stop … and it’s targeted,” Hazleton said.

“Where being mean is kids …  learning how to handle and deal with conflict, and they have moments when they’re not kind. They are learning to be kind.”

Boys do not necessarily bully more than girls and both do so in their own way according to Marriage and Family Therapist Oyen Hoffman with Mountain Family Health Centers.

“Girls can be very mean and cruel in the way they bully,” Hoffman said. “Boys can be more physical.”

A necessary learning curve takes shape when a child goes from playing at home to a classroom full of kids; such a transition can serve as an educational experience for parents, too.

“When a kid’s at home by himself or with his sibling, they can play and it’s no big deal,” said Behavioral Health Director Dr. Gary Schreiner, also with Mountain Family Health Centers. “But, when you put that kid in with a classroom of 30 kids, that’s a very different environment, and parents sometimes have a hard time understanding that.”

Long-term Effects

In severe cases, repeated adolescent bullying may lead to the development of post traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s a very, very serious problem,” Hoffman said.

Also an addiction counselor, Hoffman explained how shame more so than guilt manifests within bullied children. Guilt focuses on what a person has done wrong whereas shame makes individuals feel wrong about being themselves.

“They could live a life of low self-esteem and of shame just resulting from childhood bullying,” Hoffman said. “For a kid that has been bullied it looks like an ongoing, pervasive sense of stress regarding how other people view them or how well they feel like they are accepted in society.”

Pervasive and personal, bullying’s mental and physical effects may include: low self-esteem, symptoms of depression and anxiety, sleeplessness, bad dreams, gastrointestinal problems and other chronic illnesses as a result of a depressed immune system.

A bully may undergo just as much trauma as those he or she bullies, too.

“They are probably not natural bullies. There is something going on in their life that is causing them to act out,” Hoffman said. “Either they are getting abused at home, neglected or who knows what is going on in the bully’s life, but they can end up with moral and spiritual wounds thinking about what they did in their past.”

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Prevention in Schools

Whenever health care professionals or educators discuss bullying, they always bring up isolation.

“At all of our Roaring Fork Schools, the goal is that we establish a culture of strong relationships where kids and teachers know each other well,” Hazleton said. “We know that is the number one preventative to bullying because typically that happens when kids feel isolated or separated from a group.”

The activity known as “crew,” which Glenwood Springs Elementary children practice 30 minutes daily, features team building exercises and provides kids with an adult crew leader.

The academic routine features anti-bullying curriculum, zeroes in on social-emotional learning and works to create stronger relationships among children, parents and their crew leader.

“We do want our kids to look out for each other,” Sopris Elementary School Counselor Megan Rentz said. “We want them to build meaningful relationships with each other. They don’t always have to get along, but they need the skills and support to get through it.”

Rentz said during crew time, children sit in a circle for an icebreaker activity to start their day. Depending on the social and emotional topic, the crew leader will read a quote or story for children to reflect upon. The regimented curriculum gives children a voice and new perspectives.

“It’s a safety net for kids and for families to have that point person,” Hazleton explained of a crew leader, who oftentimes doubles as the child’s homeroom teacher in elementary schools. “Crew is a lot of learning about developing empathy and developing an understanding of reading the clues of when another child might be hurting.”

While crew takes aim at minimizing isolation, another educational tool known as restorative practices expands upon on one of crew’s other missions – fostering the development of empathy.

“The idea behind restorative practices is that when something happens or a problem occurs or someone causes harm to someone else that there is a process for understanding and repairing the harm that’s been done,” Hazleton said.

Although restorative practices include consequences, the method also helps children understand how their actions affected their peers by having to hear from them directly.

“The process needs to be broader than, ‘You did this and that happens to you,’ because that has shown not to work in schools,” Hazleton said. “When kids have to own their behavior and talk to perhaps the people that they have offended and repair it, they’ll learn from that and are less likely to do it again.”

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Understanding the Signs

Bullied children do not always readily come forward to discuss their experience, which makes intervention and help equally difficult for parents to offer.

In younger children, parents should look for agitation, anger and increased temper tantrums.

“Any kind of radical change in behavior,” Hoffman said. “It’s really important for parents to engage and talk with their kids and make sure their kids are talking to them about what they are experiencing in school.”

How a child should handle bullying varies. However, according to Hoffman, the answer generally lies within the child’s instincts.

“As a parent I would want my child to trust his or her own instincts as to how to best deal with the problem,” Hoffman said. “Not trying to solve every problem for your child is important and allowing your child some space to come up with their own solutions is going to build their self-esteem and help them deal with bullies right now in their life and later in their life.”

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While bullying at school can lead to low self-esteem in a child, a good home life can minimize the repeated, aggressive and unwanted behavior’s negative effects.

“Self-esteem comes primarily from home,” Hoffman said. “So if they get a really good home life where mom and dad are involved and active in their life, the bullies are going to be less impactful.” 

By the numbers
National Alliance on Mental Illness

Watch: Anxiety and Depression in Children

Oyen Hoffman of Mountain Family Health Centers talks about the symptoms of anxiety and depression in children.

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