Bullying is a frightening part of many of our children’s everyday lives. The Ebola epidemic is a terrifying part of life for residents in several West African countries. And now, the two are combining to create a whole new headache for some parents: Ebola bullying.
There are at least two reported incidents of African immigrant children in the United States being the targets of taunts related to Ebola. In New York, two brothers who recently moved to the Bronx from Senegal were beaten in a schoolyard by other students reportedly shouting “Ebola.” In Pennsylvania, during a high school soccer match, a teen originally from Guinea was allegedly teased by opposing players who chanted “Ebola.” It’s easy to imagine that even more Ebola-related harassment is happening elsewhere, under the radar of the press.
Dr. Joe Taravella, Supervisor of Pediatric Psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that such bullying is often borne out of fear.
“Any time people hear things in the news, their irrational fears start taking over and they personalize it to ‘Can this happen to me?'” he said, explaining that this is the case especially with children. “Their fears are great, they have wild imaginations and they wonder if they are safe and how this is going to impact them,” he added.
Taravella said that parents can prevent potential Ebola bullying and allay their children’s fears by having an open dialogue with their kids about the reality of the health crisis. Ask them if they actually know anyone diagnosed with Ebola and, after they say “No,” emphasize that, despite a handful of cases in the United States, the epidemic is really taking place overseas.
“Children need to know that in the United States, we are really on top of this. We’ll make sure we do everything to prevent it from spreading and we’ve been doing a really good job at that,” Taravella said. That’s the strategy Taravella used when a couple of his own pediatric patients expressed concerns about the disease.
“When they start hearing the real facts — it helps to squelch those fears that they have,” he said.
Some children and teens, however, are using the epidemic as simply an excuse to hurt others. Taravella said it’s reminiscent of the bullying that went on in high schools in the 1980s when teens teased others about the AIDS crisis.
“Kids try and pick up on anything that they can when their intent is to bully — to grab whatever they can and use it at their own disposal,” he said.
He noted that schools should reinforce their anti-bullying policies in the wake of Ebola taunts and parents, when made aware of such bullying, must bring it to the attention of school officials. Meanwhile, at home, parents should talk to their children about the importance of treating everyone with respect and kindness — no matter what country they’re from.
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