How to recognise, prevent and overcome this common childhood malaise.
With the school term drawing to a close, it’s a good time to reflect on how our kids are faring, not just academically, but socially and emotionally too. As parents, the worry about bullying in schools or in playgrounds is a very real one. From our own experience, we know that children can be quite cruel. If someone is mean to our kids, but their behaviour is more or less harmless and doesn’t affect them deeply or for too long, we can forgive it and forget about it. Bullying though can have longer and more serious implications.
According to the National Centre Against Bullying, the definition of bullying is when an individual or a group of people with more power, repeatedly and intentionally cause hurt or harm to another person (or group of people) who feel helpless to respond. Bullying can continue over time, is often hidden from adults, and will probably continue if no action is taken. Simply put, it means intentionally being ridiculed, humiliated, embarrassed, intimidated, emotionally battered, or even tortured and sometimes physically harmed. It can be overt or covert.
Common types of bullying
- Verbal bullying: This involves name-calling, teasing and insulting. It can also include mean comments or threats of physical harm.
- Physical bullying: This includes all forms of physical harm from pushing, hitting, pinching, scratching etc. to kicking, tripping, unwanted touching and spoiling one’s property.
- Relational bullying: This is associated with tactics used to exclude the child socially. This could be by alienating him or her from their friends, starting rumours, playing hurtful pranks, public humiliation etc.
- Cyberbullying: This is done using technology and the internet, especially social media. It can take various forms ranging from mean texts to insulting and condemning posts, and more.
- Sexual bullying: This can take the form of verbal or physical abuse with sexual connotations, crude name-calling, inappropriate and vulgar gestures, uninvited propositioning etc. In extreme cases, it might also include pornographic content. Gender discrimination can be a form of sexual bullying.
- Prejudicial bullying: This is a form of direct discrimination based on race, religion and ability (if someone is differently-abled). This may include slurs and can be verbal, physical, relational and/or cyber.
Why does bullying happen?
We all know that the instinct of “survival of the fittest” is etched deeply into the very core fabric of every living organism. In humans though, this can manifest itself in more aggressive forms. Bullying sometimes stems from this in the sense that it often comes from an individual overcompensating for his or her own insecurities (trying to eliminate anyone weaker or challenge those fitter, with the resources available)!
Bullying is a display of an imbalance of power. Bullies usually target a child or teen making him or her a scapegoat either to vent their own frustrations, hide their own weaknesses or simply to gain popularity among their peers. Jealousy is also an important factor in choosing the target. Bullies are individuals focused on themselves, are controlling and often display extreme characteristics – they could either be popular in their circles or lacking social skills, they could be quiet and sneaky in their ways or simply offensive, and they are sometimes clearly and openly aggressive, or appear friendly but fake.
Signs that your child is being bullied
Despite living in a protected cocoon at home, most children are surprisingly hardy and will not allow bullies to affect them immediately (in most cases). They might even keep quiet, hoping to eventually get accepted by the group. If your children stay silent, how can you pick up on signs that they might be victims of bullying? The tell-tale symptoms are that your child may become more quiet, anxious, cry easily, show decreased energy levels, have headaches, stomach aches and problems sleeping. Some seem unsure of themselves and start doubting their capabilities. A few have incomplete school work, start performing poorly in academics and other activities, refuse to go to school, extra-curricular classes and social events (such as birthday parties). There might be other physical signs such as bruises, torn clothing, damaged property and missing belongings.
Bullied teenagers might become exceedingly aggressive at home, especially with their siblings. They may swing from being extremely conscious of their physical appearance (even making excessive demands for things that aren’t in their usual style) or take to neglecting their looks and appearance completely. With teens, you may have to adopt a slightly less direct approach to be able to recognise signs of bullying. We all want our children to become independent and self-reliant, but it is always a good idea to continue doing some of their routine activities with them. Helping them put away their clothes, books, school material etc. is a good way to observe and assess them. Once in a while, give them head and neck (even calf and foot) massages. This teaches them to take care of their skin and helps check for physical injuries. Family dinners are equally important and should be made into a casual, easy conversation. All these rituals keep the channels of communication open, but we should be careful not to overstep and intrude into our child’s privacy.
What to do if your child is being bullied
Bullying affects the entire being of the targeted individual and it’s only natural, as parents, to shift into “damage control” mode. It is important to remember not to overreact in order to not overwhelm your child.
There are extensively researched and well-written articles about how to handle bullying (you can read advice on Family Lives and Empowering Parents here). But here’s another approach to dealing with it – teach your child to become more empowered, self-confident and resilient. It is a good time to help your little ones grow up and realise that they are more than what the bullies are making them out to be.
- Help your child develop self awareness. While this may be easier said than done, it’s a process that can start early and will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.
- Always be available to talk, discuss and share. This doesn’t have to be only about bullying. It can involve meaningful life conversations about goals, values, mentors, etc.
- Roleplay different scenarios with your child from the safety and comfort of your home.
- If you realise that your child or teen isn’t comfortable sharing his or her situation with you, then seek help from someone who can be more neutral and objective, like a professional counsellor, an older sibling, your friend’s older teen etc. You can forward web links and videos which talk about bullying and how to handle it and then discuss it as a family.
- Help your kids channel their angst through a passion or an activity that they enjoy. It serves dual purposes of keeping them busy and giving them the confidence to excel at something.
- Spiritual wellness is something that we all need sooner rather than later. Use books, audiobooks or apps to help your child evolve, grow and mature from being bullied. Relaxation techniques and introduction to meditation might also help.
- In cases where the bullying has involved physical harm, intervene immediately and involve the school or other higher authorities (EDB has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying in schools. Find more information here and get information on resources for “Co-creating a Harmonious School” here).
Your ultimate goal should be to help your child develop the confidence and garner the courage to be able to do something about their experience – either to complain to the school authorities, or write a blog or anything that helps them find proper closure to the bullying and their entire experience.
What to do if your child is the bully
Your job as a parent gets tougher if you find that your child is the bully! The most important thing to do is to stay calm and not jump to “punishment” and “say sorry” mode. Remember the mantra to really help your child will be to figure out his or her need to bully. Your child should not feel that a quick apology is enough. If they do, they will simply reboot and start afresh with a new target. So, it becomes as important in this case as well, that we begin with getting to know our child better. With younger kids, it’s easier, as you can observe your child’s general behaviour in the park, during playdates, with siblings etc. Keep in touch with the parents of their friends to understand your child’s social standing and how he or she behaves outside your supervision. It does get a little trickier with teens, but nonetheless you can begin with almost the same things that are recommended for getting to know your child who might be the victim.
If your child’s bullying comes from insecurity, address that first and help your child become stronger from within. Once they are stronger and more self-aware, help them work up the courage to apologise and make up to the child they have targeted.
If your child’s bullying comes from being overly popular, use books, videos and apps to help you have a dialogue about:
- short-term popularity vs. long-term reputation
- empathy and mindfulness as a universally-accepted way to be successful
- self-development and awareness
You might need to help your child break off from his or her clique if peer pressure is the source of the bullying. Have conversations about the family ethos and talk about admired mentors who stand up for what they believe is right. Just as you would if your child is the victim, try to channel some energy into developing new hobbies and achieving new goals. Time away from friends will work as a good distraction, and develop self-confidence and self-reliance. Discuss peer pressure and how to be more assertive. Once again, roleplay is a good way for children to practice this at home.