Tag Archives: bullying

Can I “bully-proof”my child?

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.

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What parents can do about bullying: helping girls manage relational aggression

Girls bully too. They may not always mean to, but they do. They may initiate the activity as the “Queen Bees “ of a group, perpetuate the behaviour by acting as “wannabees’’or “sidekicks”, or just let it happen by being passive bystanders. Rather than fists and stones, their weapons of choice are their tongue and their thumbs, with which text messages are sent out to the gang of friends. In an instant, someone is unfriended and a systematic programme of verbal abuse and ostracisation begins.

In a previous column   I wrote about this relational aggression amongst girls. This week I want to make some suggestions about what parents can do about it.

First, look to thine own self. We don’t always think of it but adults are often bullies. If you bully colleagues or friends, ignoring their phone calls, dismissing their ideas publically, leaving them out of social events, your daughter is bound to see this as a model for social interactions. ‘Ah,’ she might think, ‘so that’s how I deal with my insecurities. Strengthen my standing in the group by turning the others against a common enemy.’

Next, have a pre-emptive conversation with your daughter about bullying, preferably around age 10 when it most commonly starts.  Talk to her about what relational aggression looks like, ask if she has seen it around her and talk about strategies she can use if it does happen one day. Teach and model healthy assertiveness.

Make it clear to her and her friends that not only will you not tolerate relational aggression, but you will always be there for them if they need to talk about it in future. This increases the chance that a victim you know will ask for your help before things get too bad, bearing in mind that victims of relational aggression often keep silent.

Advise your daughter not to invest her all at school, in one group of friends or one area of activity. Encourage her to have some friends and interests away from school. School can be a hothouse of insecurities and jealousies, sealed off from other influences. A girl who has friends and activities out of school has a much better chance of keeping her perspective on bullies in school.

One of my clients was a teenage girl who really struggled to integrate with other girls at her new school. Somehow she just couldn’t crack the codes of behaviour and be accepted. “I honestly don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she would say. She turned out fine in the end not so much because of anything I did or said (although counselling is another important remedy) but because she was highly involved in the equestrian world, where she had other friends, from other schools and earned commendations for her achievements.

For the same reason (having other areas of emotional investment) a girl excelling at a particular academic or extra-mural activity in school might suffer less when she is harassed by her social group.

Then there’s writing. Jassy Mackenzie, a Johannesburg crime novelist, says that writing her first novel helped her to come to terms with a brush with crime. In the same way, journaling or keeping a private diary helps many girls to clarify their feelings, record incidents and have a safe place just to be. Encourage your daughter to write about all her feelings, and to include writing about positive experiences and emotions too.

Also, listen to your daughter and don’t minimise her feelings. I am reminded of Alice Sebold’s autobiographical account, called ‘Lucky’, about her rape at Syracuse University. When she reports the crime to the police the first thing they tell her is that she is lucky because another girl was raped and murdered in the same spot. Minimising feelings in this way is a failure to understand an individual’s particular experience, added to the fact that adolescence has a unique character and intensity that adults can rarely fully remember and understand.

Of course, remember that any story you hear you will only be part of the story. While you listen, keep an open mind and don’t jump to any hasty conclusions.

But it is always important to take action.

Encourage your daughter to report bullying and harrassment, with your active support if necessary. Often people are afraid that reporting and intervening will make the problem worse. But it is very important that you bring these issues to the attention of school management.  Schools need to take relational aggression as seriously as physical aggression. All schools should have comprehensive anti-bullying policies and positive social behaviour programmes in place.

For while sticks and stones may break girls bones, words (and malicious rumours and cyber harassment and social ostracization) can break their spirits and their hearts.drawing-bullying4

Sugar and Spice and Being Horrid

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Except, it seems, when they’re cracking bottles over each other’s heads, calling each other fat cows, spreading offensive, defamatory rumours or disinviting each other from parties, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.

I’m sure many parents were distressed by recent reports of the 15-year old schoolgirl at Krugersdorp High School in Johannesburg who attacked a fellow pupil with a glass bottle. This incident seemed to be at the tail end of a string of bullying and harassing incidents that had passed between these particular girls.

We should be distressed but not surprised. 

Many teachers, parents and psychologists have become increasingly aware over the last couple of years of an apparent rise in female bullying. This is sometimes called ‘relational aggression’ as physical assault usually plays only a small part in the pattern of behaviour.

Relational aggression includes spreading rumours, verbally insulting, exclusion from friendship groups and hostile and dismissive body language. It is different from the normal conflicts that occasionally flare up between girls, in that the aggression is persistent and relentless, usually targeting on one or two individuals. It can happen anywhere and in any age group, but it is most commonly played out in school settings and is most intense in the middle school, between grades 6 to 10.  

As I said earlier, I believe girl-on-girl bullying has become more common, partly as a result of the availability of more instant forms of communication. A study of young people, conducted in South Africa in 2009 by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, found that about 25% of them had been bullied by means of text messages, and that almost 70% of text messaging bullies had been bullied themselves through sms. 

Why is this verbal bullying more common amongst girls? Partly it’s because girls generally invest more in friendships than boys do, and so the stakes are much higher, the hurt greater, when conflicts arise. Words are the instrument of affection but also the weapon of choice.

Any girl can be a victim or aggressor, and many issues can incite incidents. But one common thread that runs through these fights is the social isolation of a victim so that the status of the in-group is enhanced. Ring-leaders of the in-groups might resent competition from the victim or want more attention for themselves, and it’s not uncommon for those leaders to have an unstable self-esteem, one that is easily threatened by new voices and competing influences.

The chief bully in the group is often a seemingly popular and charming girl whom parents and teachers like and give lots of attention to. In other words, not the sort of person who would automatically be suspected of such behaviour. queen bee and enabler

The American parenting educator, Rosalind Wiseman, describes these girls as “queen bees”. She points out that other girls often hover around queen bees out of fear of being excluded from their approval, and that the queen bee (or mean girl or ruler of the clique) is often not well liked by her peers, but that she makes them afraid.

Complicating matters for all parties – parents, targets and teachers – is that the very nature of relational aggression makes it more difficult to detect and take seriously.

If a girl comes to you and says that her friends have started turning away from her when she approaches, rolling their eyes at her when she speaks, or telling others that she is fat, you might not understand that this is part of a relentless campaign that happens behind your back. Victims often fail to report what has happened and can suffer for a long time without being helped. 

Johannesburg psychologist Lesley Rosenthal adds that “Part of the problem is that girls are socialised to be good and nice and compliant and people pleasers and therefore project a false self to the world. Social competition and aggression are denied and frowned upon as unfeminine. So the behaviour gets expressed covertly, through the bitchy meanness manifest in relational aggression.”

So much for sugar and spice and the world of nursery rhymes. It’s much more the little girl, who had a little curl, “right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid.”