Bullied to Death?

Emilie Olsen's death by suicide at the age of 13 is a true tragedy. Could it have been prevented?

Susan Kuligowski June 08, 2016
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On Dec. 11, 2014, thirteen-year-old Emilie Olsen shot and killed herself at home. According to a story in the Washington Post, Emilie’s dad revealed that she’d had a history of depression. Along with depression, documented complaints sent to the school reveal that Emilie had a history of being on the receiving end of vicious and long-term bullying. Bullying that, according to her parents, had stirred up Emilie’s negative self-image to begin with and had gone unanswered by those who had perpetrated it as well as those who had the authority to stop it.

An Asian-American, Emilie was adopted from China as an infant. She complained to her parents that she wished she was white like them so that she could better fit in. From a quick read of the article and the pictures of happier days that accompany it, however, it’s evident that Emilie’s destiny was to do anything but fit in—she was passionate about many things, with good grades and a colorful personality. It wasn’t until a group of students targeted Emilie that her parents insist their daughter’s life began to take a noticeable turn, although school officials disagree. And while it can’t be proven one way or the other that Emilie’s adoption had anything to do with her suicide, it also shouldn’t be ignored as a factor in the events leading up to that day.

Studies have found that the suicide rate of adoptees is four times greater than the suicide rate of non-adoptees (source).

When I first read Emilie’s story, I was saddened and outraged at the loss of yet another young person quite possibly as a result of feeling helpless in a place where she should’ve felt safe. Obviously, this is just one of many child suicides “potentially” linked to bullying, but what struck me more was the response—the sharp comments that followed the article directing the blame at Emilie, at her parents, at her adoption, at her state of mind.

Like most kids who face bullying, Emilie’s downhill slide was evident in the documentation that follows her as she went from a happy straight-A student to a struggling one. At one point, after several instances of bullying, her father reached out to the school with this statement:

“I have a bad feeling that if nothing is done then this has the possibility to escalate into something worse . . . ”

And yet, the questions in the wake of this tragedy seem to be: Why didn’t Emilie’s parents better prepare their daughter to be bullied? Why wasn’t Emilie strong enough to overcome being bullied–rather than why didn’t anyone step up to stop the bullies? As if somehow, Emilie—a child—was at fault for allowing years of bullying to influence her state of mind—depressed or ortherwise.

According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, one out of every four students (22%) report being bullied during the school year. And although there are many situations similar to Emilie’s, authorities are careful not to directly correlate bullying to suicide.

“It hurts when you have to explain yourself to people you don’t know or like. You feel them judging you, staring at you, talking about you, and I’ve made up my mind, I wanna die.” – Emilie Olsen

It’s clear that while Emilie’s bullies may not have pulled the trigger, years of torment helped to place the gun in her head if not in her hand.

It’s true, as parents, we are responsible to teach our children to deal with bullies and to find healthy ways to help them to work through difficult situations—from reaching out to teachers and staff to taking self-defense to simply turning the other cheek. However, in failing to acknowledge the power that bullies maintain over their victims is a failure of all involved; we are growing a society of children who are not being held accountable for their actions. Because, while fake and demeaning online accounts can be deleted, rude messages can be painted over in school bathrooms, and bruises do heal—the damage done can not be undone and should not be forgotten.

Peyton McConville, a Junior at Lancaster High School in Upstate New York, recently wrote about bullying in an editorial to her local newspaper. “As a society, we are aware of the large problem bullying is in today’s school culture. Why are we focusing on  teaching kids how to handle the effects of bullying rather than teaching them not to bully? Do we really want our kids to be a generation where kindness and compassion are absent and interacting discourteously with one another is accepted as the norm? Let’s focus on teaching kids to be the people we want to see more of in the world.”

Teaching kids empathy from an early age may be a starting point.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. While American culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathetic, research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.–Psychology Today

In Raise a Kind Child, author Jessica Leigh Hester points out, “Not only is empathy the foundation of every single relationship kids will have, it also has a major impact on their success in school and beyond. A study of more than 270,000 students from kindergarten through high school found that kids who practiced empathy in social and emotional learning programs demonstrated improvements in attitude, behavior, and academics. Plus, research suggests that over the course of their lives, empathetic people tend to be happier and healthier than their less compassionate peers.”

Teaching empathy begins at home and must be reinforced in the classroom. While some may argue that it is not the job of the school to parent the children in their care, children begin to feel peer pressure beginning at the age 5 (entering kindergarten) and work to please their friends and classmates from that point on. While emphasizing empathy should start at home, it must also be practiced where they are most likely to experience social interaction the most: in school.

By teaching our children early and often to care for others and to be accountable for their actions, we can change the trend that we’re seeing happening more and more across the country. But first, we must acknowledge that there is a problem. We must stop pointing the finger at the victims.

For more information regarding raising a well-balanced and empathetic child as well as helping your adopted child to foster healthy development in a challenging school environment, click here.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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