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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

National Runaway Prevention Month: Runaway Children & Bullying - A Preventable Problem

It is estimated that between 1 and 3 million runaway youths are living on the streets of the United States at any given time. Child Quest works to prevent the disappearance of these children, and to aid their reunification and recovery once they are rescued from the streets. Preventing the disappearance of children can be a daunting task. While parents can take precautions against exposing their kids to dangerous strangers, they can often be powerless to prevent their children from running away. A child who has the opportunity and motivation to run away, and considers the life they are leaving too bleak to sustain can head out of the door with deep determination. And from there, the child more often than not, finds themselves falling into a horrible lifestyle on the streets from which it can be very hard to return. Children from every demographic and socio-economic background run away from home. Their reasons are multiple. Some have been abused at home. Others may believe themselves to be escaping poverty. However, a large number of these child runaways are trying to escape the persistent torments of bullies. 

The Influence of Peers 

Much of what happens to children is (as hard as this might be for parents to hear) out of the control of adults. Their interactions with their peers and their experiences at school have just as much of a formative and emotional impact upon them as their home experiences do – and kids can be truly vicious to each other. Bullying is a major problem, which can leave dreadful emotional scars. Bullies have an enormously negative impact on their victims, which may last for decades if not for the rest of their lives, or even result in death. Bullies render their victims deeply depressed, filled with self-loathing and unable to bring any positivity at all to their lives. Bullying instills a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness which even the happiest and most stable of home lives cannot combat.

Furthermore, bullying and its effects are becoming harder than ever to eliminate. Whereas in previous decades bullied kids could view their home as a sanctuary in which they were safe from their tormenters, these days the bullies can get at them even in their homes through the internet and cell phones. Cyberbullying is a dangerous phenomenon, which has, unfortunately, claimed lives. Children bullied in person and then bullied over the internet have no respite from the suffering, and may feel that their only escape option is to run away. 

Spotting the Signs 

To add to the problem, the symptoms of bullying often go undetected. Children already feeling worthless and powerless due to the actions of bullies often think that telling an adult will make it seem as though they cannot hold their own, making them feel even more pathetic. Thus many children suffer in silence, enduring the bullying until they can take it no more – whereupon they may do something drastic, like run away. Parents unfortunately can often do nothing other than be vigilant for patterns of behavior which may indicate bullying. If children are continually withdrawn, sullen, and persistently express a lack of desire to engage in activities with their peers, these may indicate that they are being bullied. Similarly, loss of possessions or damaged possessions, unexplained cuts and bruises, and perhaps excessive clinginess to those that offer them love can all be symptoms of bullying. It is important to note that these symptoms should develop as a pattern – every child has down days, or bruises due to being a kid and living life. Parents should not assume that their child is suffering at school purely because they came home with one bruise one time, or were sad for one evening.

One of the best ways in which to tell whether or not a child is being bullied is to watch how they behave with food, and to note their attitude towards their bodies. While it is a rare teenage girl indeed who completely loves the way she looks, bullying based around the way people look is growing ever more vicious in this body-obsessed world, and can develop into serious problems for the victims. Boys and girls are increasingly becoming more and more worried about the way they look, their lack of confidence in their bodies often exacerbated by nasty comments from their peers. If your child is displaying any of the early symptoms of an eating disorder, it could be a sign that they are being bullied. Eating disorders in themselves are a terrible blight upon a life. As well as damaging their health, eating disorders may give sufferers a huge desire to escape the agonies of a life in which they have little control over what they eat. Watching for signs of excessive body-consciousness, over-exercising, or pickiness around food can help parent’s spot symptoms in their child before it becomes a more serious problem. Noticing the signs early means that one can work to eradicate the bullying and build their child’s confidence before that child becomes ill or, perhaps worse, runs away to escape their problems. 

Combating the Problem 

If it comes to light that your child is being bullied, take it as an opportunity to bond with your child. While it may seem like an insurmountable problem, don’t despair, there are things you can do. Your child’s school should have an anti-bullying policy in place which can stop the bullying in its tracks if successfully implemented. However, working on the emotional impact that bullies have is perhaps most important. Encourage your child to open up to you. Talking about how the bullying makes them feel can help the bullied child to express emotions and begin to come to terms with those feelings. Reassuring a child that it is the bullies, and not themselves, who are to blame, can also help greatly with their self-esteem. Never, ever dismiss things they tell you as too silly or insignificant to worry about – you may feel as though you are allaying their fears, but in fact you are dismissing concerns which, to them, feel hugely significant. By helping their self-esteem and reassuring them that they are loved, liked, and important on their own merit can go a very long way to raising self-confidence. Providing a sense of security can stop a child from feeling that the only way to escape their bleak or bullied life is to run away.

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National Runaway Prevention Month (NRPM): When a youth runs away, the impact is felt throughout the entire community. All of us - individuals, businesses, community groups, teachers, elected officials, and human service agencies - are encouraged to participate in National Runaway Prevention Month. Working together to identify resources and to help youth develop life skills can make the difference between a youth running away and/or finding needed resources. 

Written by Melissa Hardesty
Edited by Anthony Gonzalez for Child Quest International

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