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As school starts, a pediatrician talks about the dangers of bullying

Dr. Michael Pitt has treated children and teens who’ve attempted suicide or practiced self harm after being bullied; he also readily admits that when he was a kid he bullied another boy.

Dr. Michael Pitt: "Technology makes it so there is no downtime where kids can’t be picked on."
University of Minnesota

Michael Pitt, M.D., has seen the impact of bullying from both sides.

Pitt is an assistant professor of pediatrics and associate residency program director at the University of Minnesota’s division of pediatric hospital medicine. As a pediatric hospitalist, he’s treated children and teens who’ve attempted suicide or practiced self harm after being bullied; he also readily admits that when he was a kid he bullied another boy, something he’s been trying to make up for most of his adult life.

“I try to use my past experience with bullying in my work as a pediatrician,” Pitt told me. He supports and advocates for his patients — and works hard to educate the medical students he supervises about the dangers of bullying.

“As part of the adolescent curriculum at the University of Minnesota, we talk about bullying and ways for pediatricians to be advocates outside of the medical setting,” he said. “I emphasize that role, and explain the larger psychological impact that bullying has on its victims.”

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I spoke to Pitt as summer was winding down. He told me that pediatricians see a spike in suicide attempts at back-to-school time, a phenomenon he attributes to anxiety over bullying at the launch of the school year. “Some kids are particularly vulnerable at this time of year,” he said.

MinnPost: Were you inspired to become a pediatrician in part by your own childhood experiences with bullying?

Michael Pitt: I don’t think my experience bullying another child played a role in my becoming a pediatrician. The truth is that bullying others was not a pattern of behavior across my relationships in general growing up. I wasn’t a bully with other kids. But for some reason this kid was different. He’d moved to my school in the middle of the school year. Other kids bullied him and I was content to not come to his defense. This is semantics, I know: I own that I was also a bully to this kid. That bullying behavior didn’t continue during the rest of my life, and as I was growing up I was very aware of how hurtful it must’ve felt that I didn’t come to his defense and that I was in part willing to be a ringleader.

MinnPost: It sounds like the memory of how you treated that other boy stayed with you.

Michael Pitt: I always felt bad about what happened. I’d gone to college, his family moved away, and I’d look for him on Facebook and try to find ways to reach out to him. It was always my regret that I hadn’t stuck up for him rather than being a reason that he dreaded coming to school.

Eventually I asked a family friend who was a detective to figure out where this guy was living and where he worked. When I got that information I made an unannounced visit to his work to see if I could make an appointment to speak with him. I told him I wanted to apologize for my behavior when we were kids. He was nice about it. He said that he was willing to forgive me almost right away. 

MinnPost: Do you remember your actual apology? What did you say?

Michael Pitt: I told him that what I did to him is one of my biggest regrets in life. I said, “I want you to know that I am sorry. I don’t need you to forgive me, but I want to let you know that I regret what I did.” I also said, “As dad and a pediatrician, the one positive thing that I hope can come from this experience is that I can talk to kids and help them learn not to do what I did to you.”

MinnPost: What was his response?

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Michael Pitt: He was quick to forgive. He said that he had been mean to kids himself before we met and he was thinking that what I did to him was some kind of payback. I made it clear that I still didn’t think that my behavior was anything to be excused. In the end it was an amicable forgiveness.

MinnPost: How has bullying changed since you were a kid?

Michael Pitt: It used to be that bullying just happened face to face. Kids were stressed about being bullied while they were on the bus or the playground and the time between classes — places where parents and teachers weren’t around to witness. But now there is cyber bullying. With cyber bullying, if a kid has a smart phone or a computer, they can be bullied anywhere.

MinnPost: In the past, the time outside of school could be a bully-free zone. But it’s not the same today.

Michael Pitt: Yes. This is something that parents need to be aware of. Technology makes it so there is no downtime where kids can’t be picked on.

MinnPost: When do you interact with kids that have been bullied?

Michael Pitt: I’m a pediatric hospitalist. In my job, I see a kid if he or she is sick enough to be in the hospital. So I am seeing a lot of suicide attempts, many by kids who have experienced bullying.

MinnPost: Do you ever talk to your patients about your own bullying experiences?

Michael Pitt: I’ve used my story as a way to connect with kids, to explain that I understand how mean school can be and, how hard kids can be on one another. I use my story as a way to relate even if I’m coming from the other side of the equation. 

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MinnPost: What is a pediatrician’s role when they learn that their patient is being bullied?

Michael Pitt: As a pediatrician, I’ve talked to patients about where they feel safe or who they feel safe talking to about being bullied or hurting themselves because of bullying. I talk to parents. I have acted as an intermediary with a school district about bullying situations. In those cases, with the family’s permission, I have been able to work with a principal and lay out the gravity of what’s been going on and measures that should be taken to address it.

Just as pediatricians are trained to look for physical injuries that could be caused by parents and caretakers, they also have to be on the lookout for emotional injuries. These could be manifested in self harm or in a range of physical reactions to bullying.

MinnPost: Have societal attitudes about bullying changed? Are kids kinder to each other than they were when you were a growing up?

Michael Pitt: I will say that when I was growing up being mean used to be considered funny and cool. Now being smart is considered cool. Being an ally is also cool. In the movie “21 Jump Street,” a couple of cops go undercover in a high school. One cop was cool when he was a teenager. The other was bullied. When they go back to high school years later, they discover that the underdog is suddenly the cool kid. The bully is not cool. That reflects attitudes that we’re seeing more of these days, that being an ally is cool. Kids are more tolerant and accepting.

MinnPost: That’s heartening. 

Michael Pitt: Yes, but I will say that when we have a president whose brand is being a bully — nobody can deny it — things may change. Our current administration is setting an example of “Bully in Chief” and spreading the message that bullying is cool. There have been examples, at least in the press, of increased hate crimes and bullying nationwide since this president was elected. I’d hate to see that kind of crime increase in Minnesota.

As a parent, this creates a challenge. I want to instill in my kids a respect for authority, but it has been hard for me to advocate respect for a leader who is a bully. 

MinnPost: Do you think there is anything kids can do to avoid being bullied?

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Michael Pitt: I think it is dangerous to give advice about how not to be bullied. I don’t think there is anything a kid can do to not be bullied. Bullying is not something a person brings on themselves. 

MinnPost: That makes sense. But do you have practical advice for kids who’ve been bullied?

Michael Pitt: I advise young people to build connections and the ability to reach out to somebody if they are feeling threatened. I also advise kids to speak up when they witness other kids being bullied. We want to encourage young people to feel empowered to say something when they see bullying behavior.

MinnPost: Pediatricians also have contact with parents. What do you say to parents about bullying?

Michael Pitt: I encourage parents and other adults to teach kids that being in touch with their emotions is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength. This perspective is empowering. Parents should also ask their kids if they know what they would do if someone is mean to them at school or online.

MinnPost: We’re talking a lot about kids who’ve been bullied. What about kids who are bullying others? How should parents and other adults respond?

Michael Pitt: It’s important to teach kids not to bully and to establish consequences for children if you learn that they have been bullying others. You want them to feel they have the safety to talk to you about what is happening in their lives, but it is also important to establish consequences for bullying behavior and to be vocal about those consequences. And there is room for empathy: We know as pediatricians that the bullied often end up being bullies themselves. Breaking the cycle can make a big difference.

MinnPost: How do you talk about bullying in your own family?

Michael Pitt: I’m a father of a 5-, 3- and 1-year-old. We wrote a family mission statement that includes the idea that we will be leaders in practicing patience, kindness and forgiveness. In our family we talk a lot about how we want to live our lives. We’ve been working on anti-bullying strategies since before our oldest daughter started kindergarten.

My wife and I are thinking of ways that we can be proactive in teaching our kids to be allies with others, to help prevent bullying in our community and to stick up for other kids when they see bullying happening.

MinnPost: Why is it important for you to tell the story of being a childhood bully?

Michael Pitt: I think that vulnerability is one of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s arsenal. Being vulnerable and honest about my own experiences and encouraging people to talk about their experiences with bullying helps to remind my students about the importance of openness and honesty to the kids they are taking care of. I think that talking about bullying helps break the cycle of bullying. Asking for forgiveness also helps — even if you don’t always get the forgiveness you seek.