I have been invited to go down to PE to talk at a fundraiser – and the topic that I was asked to speak on is bullying. So I went back into my archives and here is one of my very first columns. It is a topic that, sadly, is still important as bullying is such a pervasive and difficult issue. And not only in schools and during childhood. My work with adults and within corporate and workplace settings keeps reminding me that it is a big issue throughout our society.
“Our child lies in bed every night, crying. He says he’s going to kill himself. Kids at school are calling him names. Some of them push him around. We don’t know what to do about it.” The mother becomes tearful. The father says, “I just want to go to the school and beat up every one of those bullies.” I look at my distressed clients and see the expectant look in their eyes, the look that says, ‘Give us a solution.’ While there is no single answer, there are, however, strategies we can use to try manage this problem.
Bullying evokes a variety of responses. We might feel powerless and tempted to minimise the situation, or angry and determined to protect our kids by taking action against perpetrators. We might also be concerned not to overprotect our child from a ‘normal’ life situation and believe they should ‘tough it out’.
The first thing to do when you suspect your child is being bullied or if he/she reports being bullied, is to establish the extent and nature of the problem. Is what your child is experiencing part of acceptable social interaction or is it more persistent and problematic? Some children are more sensitive and may struggle to manage ordinary social interactions, but on the whole children are pretty accurate about assessing the intentions of their peers.
Bullying can be verbal, physical or social in nature and has the intention to hurt, humiliate and isolate individuals. It can include name-calling, shunning and ignoring, threatening, mocking, physical violence, spreading rumours, extorting money and possessions. These days it happens not only at school and social gatherings, but also online and through cell phones. And it is something that both girls and boys do.
Parents often ask me whether there is something specific about their child that makes them the victim of bullying, are some kids are more vulnerable? Bullying can be about anything: your height, or lack of it, your weight, or lack of it, your money, or lack of it, Bullies will zero in on any aspect of their victim’s life. However, those children who are the victim of repeated bullying do tend to have certain characteristics in common. They tend to have poor coping mechanisms in ordinary situations. Often they have low self-esteem and may be anxious and passive, and struggle to assert themselves. On the other hand they may also respond too impulsively or aggressively to an event, making them a sure target for bullies who thrive on getting a rise out of their victims.
Bear in mind also that the way you respond to finding out that your child is being bullied is influenced by your own experiences. If you were, or still are, a victim of harassment, or a bully yourself, you might find it difficult to act in a calm and appropriate way. Bullying also isn’t just something that happens to children. At all levels of society and in all workplaces people intimidate others or act passively in the face of intimidation. How you typically act in these situations can affect how you respond to your child being bullied.
To help your child who’s being bullied begin by acknowledging and recognising how difficult the situation is for them, praise their bravery in telling you about it. Offer comfort and support, no matter how upset you are, and take seriously their fear that if the bully finds out that they’ve told, the bullying may get worse. This does not mean you should keep the incidents secret and bury them. Be active in approaching the situation and deal with it sooner rather than later. Brainstorm and discuss different coping strategies. Consciously working on open communication between you and your child will help you to help them to be more in charge of the painful situation. As part of this approach you could role play what they could do or say differently.
Your actions should also take into account that bullying is a systemic problem, not only an individual one. You might need to speak to the school, or other adults in positions of authority, and report the incident, but in such a manner as not to disempower your child. All schools should have an anti-bullying policy, and this policy must be made clear to learners and staff at the school. At the same time it is not only the school’s responsibility to solve the problem. This can only be done effectively if you see yourself as in partnership with the school and your child, allies in enforcing zero-tolerance for bullying.