Bullying is a word that strikes fear in the heart of any parent. Twenty years ago it was barely considered to be an issue. Since then it has been understood that all sorts of people are bullied for reasons which are rational and ridiculous, and that bullying absolutely ruins the lives of some children. We know now that some children who have been bullied go on to bully others, others seem to start out as bullies and cannot see why this matters. This paper discusses both what is bullying and what can be done about it. How can you help your child?’
Bullying is one of our most frightening words – it has most unpleasant connotations, implying an intention to cause pain, either emotional or physical. Strangely enough, it was barely considered to be a school issue until a Norwegian named Dan Olweus investigated in the 1980s and identified Bullying as one of the most significant issues for schoolchildren at that time.
It took some time for further studies to happen: I recall in 1991 asking a Head of Year 7 [children aged 11/12] to complete a questionnaire about bullying. He thought it would be a waste of time but agreed, convinced that there was no need. He was shocked when one anonymous questionnaire after another answered that the child was aware of bullying or had indeed been bullied. There has generally been surprise at the levels of bullying taking place. Most adults recall little bullying at school unless they themselves were victims or bullies. It was not something that was spoken about, unless as a necessary learning experience designed to help ‘softies’ toughen-up for the real world. Since then the effect of bullying has been increasingly recognised. It is acknowledged that there are bullies in the workplace, bullies at Places of Worship, bullies in the Armed Forces, bullies within families. Some people justify some bullying by pointing out that a modicum of bullying is necessary to make people do what they must. The bullying we are concerned with here is Bullying intended to make a child or children feel unhappy. Bullying is readily observed in the animal kingdom. Seagulls ‘mob’ a bird which is not like them, often to the point of killing it. The runt of a litter of, say, pigs or dogs is ruthlessly disposed of. The apparently weak is tormented, presumably because the disposal of the weak means that more resources are available for the strong.
People with long hair, short hair, big smiles, funny teeth, thin, fat, tall, small, people like you and people like me. We all might be bullied, but people are more likely to be victimised if they are a little different. So the one child with red hair in the class might be more vulnerable, or the child whose voice has still not broken – but equally the very beautiful teenage girl, or the really clever student. I have seen a whole range of victims, and have never managed to identify a simple commonality. All of us can see that some people are more readily victims, but also tall, attractive, capable people have been victimised for some quite indeterminate reason. Sometimes, just being available to be bullied is sufficient.
This means that there is no sure-fire way of ensuring that your child is not bullied. You can help a little: Parents who were themselves bullied can make their children more vulnerable by caring too much and referring to the issue to the point where children anticipate trouble. The child who appears vulnerable, who walks with fear, is more likely to be picked on. Inevitably, the child who looks easy to tease, who appear different will be identified by others. Help your child to look like the others; if he wants to wear a jacket and tie when everyone else is wearing a t shirt – or vice versa – then he probably has the confidence to cope with the consequences. But don’t dress him or her in something they hate, that also marks them out as different.
Encourage your child to walk tall, to appear to have confidence. Posture is important. Teach your child not to grin when anxious – this is a common tendency, and reminds me of the chimpanzee’s submissive grin. When your child grins, the others may use it as an excuse to become aggressive.
Laugh at the children when they are young, tease them gently so that they become used to being laughed at by others, but you can teach them with affection. Later, if others laugh at them maliciously, they are less likely to be upset. Any gross reaction will stimulate further attacks – finding someone to laugh at is more fun than working! Make sure your child not only knows that he has to tell the teacher when he or someone else is being bullied, but that he actually tells. Many children know the theory, but are anxious that the bullying will become worse if teachers are involved. Be clear about what is bullying – an eight year old told me he had been bullied when in fact someone had been malicious just once, and it had been dealt with.
Teach Fogging. Most of us can be witty or cutting in retrospect, it is harder at the time. Fogging is a lovely technique that can confuse a bully and give your child confidence. So that if someone calls them a name e.g. Fatty, the child can answer with ‘Thank you for pointing that out’, or ‘And your point is?’ or even ‘So?’. I amuse myself by saying ‘Yes, I just love eating’ or ‘Chocolate is my favourite thing’. One wonderful girl who was called ‘fat’ asked the other ‘Have you had an eye test recently?’. Help your child to practise this at home where he can see how difficult it is to continue teasing someone who blocks the taunting. He can practise saying something nasty to you. When you answer sweetly ‘And your point is?’ he will feel how hard it is to go on.
Sometimes smaller children seem to make taller friends, a quiet child chooses an outgoing cheeky friend. A pair of children offer less of a target, especially when one can protect the other. Be aware and intervene early. If you know your five year old is being made to cry, talk to teachers and parents straight away. Be prepared to go in to school to make sure the matter is dealt with. This makes your child is very aware that you are supportive although you will have to make sure that this does not aggravate the situation.
Be further prepared to remove the child from this school if the situation persists. Often the bullying is situated with a particular group of individuals and a situation has developed where the child sees them and fears them, thus feeding their strength – in another school, your child has another chance to be him, make friends with people who like him and to develop his confidence.
Why are people bullied?
People are bullied for a variety of reasons; sometimes they are just available. Bullying seems to be an addictive habit in that one person can actually enjoy making someone cry, hand over money, or do something stupid or shaming. Once a person is identified as a victim, it seems more likely that they will be bullied again. Other children will join in. Work by Millgram in the 1960s showed that students could be persuaded to give powerful and painful electric shocks to strangers, simply by being asked to do so. The strangers were actors who cried out when the ‘shocks’ were given and although some of the students looked troubled, most continued with the experiment and increased the voltage. Children who see someone bullying are often easily persuaded to join in, and not just to ensure they stay friends with the strong ones. Sometimes they do it just for fun.
Who is a Bully?
There is a stereotype of people who are having a hard time at home coming in to another environment and bullying people. This may sometimes be the case, but some children bully because they find it fun. Others have not thought how much unhappiness they are causing the victims. And others because they were bullied once and are now big enough to be the aggressor – this seems to have been what happened at Public Schools before ‘fagging’ became a thing of the past. Bullies are not usually bad people and a number of adults are horrified to recall things they said and did to others when they were young. If you discover that your child is bullying others, you need to make your feelings clear to the child. Show that unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with. Point out that pain is being caused to others, remind the child to ‘Do as you would be done by’ is a good motto for life. But, once you have explained all this, do not spend hours and hours discussing the issue. Do not reward the bad behaviour with too much of your time and attention. Support whatever actions the school takes, do not try to justify what the child has done, if it cannot be justified.
Bullying is pernicious. Encourage your school not just to have an anti-bullying policy, but to make sure everyone knows about it and supports it. Make sure your child is comfortable telling you about the bullying, and that he has the confidence to go on and tell a teacher. BUT try and give your child some strategies for deflecting the offence. It is so much easier to give your child the means to deter bullies through verbal skills, than to ensure that school or parents will act responsibly.