When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s, most adults dismissed bullying with that worn-out rhyme "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names can never hurt me." It was flat-out wrong. New research show that getting bullied is a real health threat for kids:

  • This week, Duke University researchers reported that DNA inside the cells of bullied kids ages faster. Their telomeres – "tips" that protect chromosomes the way plastic tips keep a shoelace from unraveling – were shorter. That's a sign of stress that accelerates aging and can raise risk for a wide variety of health problems later on.

  • Last summer, Irish researchers who tracked the lives and health of 8,568 kids found that overweight children were more likely to be bullied – and were at higher risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes. Bullying could boost risk by turning overweight kids off to participating actively in gym class or going out for sports.

What can you do? Start by making sure you child's school is a bully-free zone. The group Parent Action for Healthy Kids recommends asking your child's principal these questions:

  • Can parents view a copy of the district's Anti-Bullying Policy?

  • (A critical section in an anti-bullying policy would cover the procedure for reporting bullying and how the report is investigated by the school.)

  • Has the school completed a staff and student survey to assess the level of bullying and other aggressive behavior?

  • Does the school have a team identified to review the survey results and to look at evidence-based solutions that will be sustained long-term?

  • Who is on the team, and does it include a broad representation of parents?

  • Has all staff received training on bullying prevention? This includes every adult who interacts with the children (custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, food service, etc.)

  • Is the training focused on giving adults the skills necessary to intervene effectively with aggression and create a positive environment?

  • Has a behavioral chart (often called a rubric) been developed that lists the consequences earned for choosing aggressive or bullying behavior?

  • What formal instruction are the children receiving on how to behave? In other words, where, and how, is social-emotional skill development being taught? Note: This would generally occur through a comprehensive health education class using curricula such as the Michigan Model for Health® K-12.

  • Does the school use a positive behavior approach to intervening with mean/hurtful behavior (e.g., helping the aggressor reflect on how he/she has caused harm) versus a punitive approach (e.g., suspending)?

  • Does the school offer workshops or resources to help a parent support their child whether they are the target of bullying, the aggressor or the bystander?