How To Help Your Child Deal With Bullying
I’m alarmed by the number of children who see me in psychotherapy because they are bullied. In my practice, I saw a child as young as 3 years old who was bullied. Every day on the school bus, the child would be slapped by a group of 5-year-olds. The parents figured this out only when the child started having nightmares that made him wake up in fear and cry through the night. As in this case, the reason for bullying — generally power, anger, or mischief — is not explicit. But other clients have been bullied for their weight, complexion, voice, intelligence and sexuality.
Dr Dan Olewus, considered the founding father of research on bullying, defines bullying as when a person “is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to the negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.” These negative actions can take the form of physical aggression, derogatory comments, name calling, and inappropriate comparisons. Holding back important information, emotional blackmail, and threats (e.g., about breaking/ stealing belongings) can also be categorized as acts of bullying. There are other ways of meting out physical, mental or emotional pain: Cyberbullying, which arose with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, invites public humiliation.
The act and/or experience of bullying is often regarded as a part of life: I remember at a workshop, once, parents dismissed hurtful, aggressive behaviour as being normal and harmless; they felt that children were engaging in some harmless fun—one parent even added that until there is violence, childish aggression is completely acceptable.
But bullying goes beyond teasing; children say they feel targeted, insulted, and very vulnerable, particularly when they face a group as the brunt of its jokes and comments. Writing off this experience and failing to acknowledge its repercussions can be damaging – for both bullies and victims: In a longitudinal study, Duke University professor William Copeland and his team found that bullying can cause long-term psychological harm. They studied people who had been victims of bullies in their childhood, people who were bullies in their childhood, and people who were both bullies and victims in their childhood. They found that victims, especially those who were also bullies, showed greater levels of anxiety and depression in adulthood. On the other hand, the bullies were at a risk for developing anti-social personality disorder. Copeland hypothesizes that bullying changes people’s physiological response to stress and inhibits their ability to cope.
The effects of bullying can be long-lasting and manifest in the form of poor confidence, shaky self-esteem, withdrawal from social relationships, violence and, in some cases, even psychosomatic symptoms. Preschool children to teenagers often cut classes or avoid school in response to bullying, leading to further isolation, poor academic performance, low moods, anxiety and even depression.
Watching a child deal with bullying can be heartbreaking and frustrating for parents; we can’t be with our kids every minute of every day to protect them. And in any case, the way to weather bullying is often within. But there are some steps parents can take to help kids avoid being bullied from the start, or help them deal with bullying once it begins.
Teaching children to be assertive and firm is a good place to start, even from an early age when they first start going to school. Teach your child that he or she has a right to say ‘No’ and also should report to school authorities instances that hurt or cause negative emotions. This attitude and action sends a clear message that any attempts at bullying will be met with confidence and capability.
Another way to help your child, if he or she has already experienced bullying, is to help them plan their reaction to it. In general, children who get easily irritated or are reactionary are the ones who are more likely to be harassed. Teach your child that sometimes, when a comment is passed, it’s alright to ignore it and walk away to a group of friends. At other times, humour or tact may be useful to get out of bullying situations. Having said that, explain that it is important to choose battles wisely. If the bully resorts to violence, then the child should respond by reporting it to the school authorities or the school counsellor, who can help address the problem. If your small child is unwilling or unable to do so, report it yourself, though adolescents may feel more empowered by taking their own call on this. Most schools have an explicitly clear policy that bullying is punishable and parents will be informed. Some even discuss issues such as bullying and its impact during school assemblies, as a way to discourage and preempt the experience.
Finally, teaching your children to filter feedback – that is, deciding whose opinion matters and whose doesn’t – is another coping mechanism you can help instill. Bullying may come in the form of harsh, insensitive comments. But when children have a stable sense of self and confidence, they can more easily ignore the malicious buzz and, as a result, they become less likely targets of bullying. Both parents and educators can help strengthen children’s self-esteem and inner resilience. (Read more about how to raise resilient kids on The Swaddle.)
Sometimes, all the ignoring and humour in the world can’t stop the bullying jibes from hitting home. In these cases, more direct support is needed. A bullying victim can be paired with a friend or buddy who chooses to support and even stand up for the victim. This is a healthy solution that teaches children the importance of developing and reaching out for social support. I remember a 12-year-old girl, teased for her weight, was comforted by another friend who took her side and firmly told the bullies she would take the matter to the Principal as a witness. This served as a threat to the bullies as well as a lesson that the victim was not alone.
Sometimes, our kids aren’t the bully victims; they’re the bullies. Possible signs that indicate your child is a bully could be difficulty controlling his or her aggression, deriving pleasure from others’ humiliation, harming animals, exerting dominance, or displaying a lack of sensitivity towards other children. Research also shows that aggressive patterns at home and unhealthy discipline strategies may also encourage bullying behaviour. (Watch for my follow-up piece on what to do if you suspect your child is a bully.) Teaching your kids to be kind and compassionate, and demonstrating these qualities yourself, often helps in building greater sensitivity and respect for other children and curbs bullying.
Ultimately, bullying is unlikely to occur in front of adults, so it’s difficult to know if our kids are being bullied or are bullying. But creating healthy spaces at home and school in the form of conversations – as in school assemblies – or in the form of daily rituals – like night time reading with your child – can help to facilitate discussions. The support of parents, teachers and peers, and a strong self-esteem, can prevent or reduce the scars that bullying imprints on people’s lives.