The Journal for child and adolescent mental health describes bullying as repeated psychological or physical oppression on a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group. It involves direct behaviours such as teasing, taunting, hitting, threatening or stealing. It can also take on an indirect form by causing a student to be socially isolated through intentional exclusion.
Bullying is also more likely to happen in school rather than outside it and girls are less likely to be bullied than boys.
Bullies often have a need to feel control and powerful and sometimes come from homes where physical punishment is meted out as the form of discipline and where there is little emotional warmth. They derive pleasure from inflicting injury on their victims and have little empathy and blame their victims for causing them to be provocative. The victims on the other hand are usually socially anxious and close to their parents who tend to be overprotective and are physically weaker than their aggressors.
The forms of bullying include: Physical bullying which involves hitting and the use of force, verbal bullying which involves name calling and using insults, social bullying involves using relationships to hurt others by excluding them from social groups or spreading rumours that will make it difficult for them to make friends or giving the silent treatment and finally cyber bullying which occurs online.
How does one identify that their child is being bullied? Because bullying erodes the self-esteem of your child and instils in them fear that makes it difficult for them to approach an adult, it’s important to keep a keen eye on behavioural changes.
They may develop a reluctance to go to school. While it’s normal after a long weekend or holiday break for them to not want to go back to school, something maybe amiss if they constantly complain of headaches or stomach aches or make up excuses that prevent them from going to school. Some may even try to run away from school. If you are frequently being called to collect your child early from day school or boarding school then it could be warning sign.
Observe their demeanour after school. If your child is always coming home in a sad mood and appears downtrodden, something may be wrong. Look out for physical injuries as well and unexplained aches. Check if their uniform or school books are torn as well.
They develop the victim stance. They may begin to walk with their head down or develop an unwillingness to speak their mind or comment on anything. They are unable to stand up for themselves. This is due to the erosion of their self-esteem. They become less talkative and withdrawn and may go into their rooms after school and avoid family interactions. Sometimes they may become unnecessarily aggressive towards their siblings if the bullying goes on for a long time and they drop the victim stance and become the bully.
There is a drastic change in their grades. If you notice a sharp dip in their performance academically and in co-curricular activities, it may be a red flag that your child is being bullied. Bullies leave deep emotional scars on their victims and often that will be unable to focus on their grades or after school activities.
You are always buying school uniform and other supplies. If your child is regularly asking for new school material, it’s best to investigate what the causes could be before you dismiss them for being careless. Bullying can also take the form of stealing. The goal of the bully is to make the victim feel put down and exert their power and they will use all the means possible. This is especially rampant among form ones or if your child recently joined a boarding school.
They change their friends.
Social bullying is especially common among girls. Your daughter may suddenly seem reluctant to interact with a group of friends that she was previously close to. Parents can stay in the loop by keeping close relationships with the parents of their children’s friends and that way it will be easier to spot out if your daughter or son is excluded from social events such as birthday parties.
They have trouble sleeping.
This is will be due to anxiety about going to school the next day because they do not know what will happen them. Some may revert to outgrown habits such as bed wetting and they appear tired in the morning and cannot focus in class or when preparing for school. They could also lose their appetite at breakfast or other meals due to stress or depression.
There have erratic changes in their mood. They may become suddenly anxious or sullen for no apparent reason and could remain in that state for a long time. They could also become extra clingy and refuse to be left alone.
Once you have identified that your child may be the victim of a bully, there are a few helpful tips on how to help them.
Be sensitive and ask open ended questions. Understand that they are vulnerable and asking them questions that try and make it seem like they brought it upon themselves is not helpful. Engage with them by enquiring from them how you can be useful to them in that situation. If your child it’s too young, try and explain to them simply what bullying is as their understanding of it will allow them to open up more.
Encourage them to take up skills in other areas so that they can build up confidence. This will help to get rid of some of the stigma and low self-esteem brought about by bullying.
Teach them on how to react. You can enact scenarios with your child in which they are facing the bully. The best reaction is no reaction as most bullies tend to pick on those they can get a reaction from. They will also pick on those who cannot stand up for themselves. Role playing and teaching your child what to do when in those situations gives them the confidence boost they desperately need when facing a bully.
Do not try and confront the bully’s parents. Avoid going with guns blazing to demand explanation from the parents of the bully. This will often make the bullying worse and naturally the parents will get defensive and take the side of their child making your confrontation ineffective. Approaching the administration offense style is also ineffective. Often times the administration might not know that the bullying is going on and will also take a defensive stand. It is best to approach both parties once you have calmed down and collected all the facts from your child in order to have a rational conversation that is centred on finding lasting solutions.
Do not dismiss your child’s experience. Telling them that it is part of growing up or trivialising their fears is probably the least helpful thing to do.
Be patient and give the school administration time to make steps to stop the bullying from happening. The process may involve policy changes which have to be considered by a relatively large group of people in order to be approved so this might take time.
Keep a diary of all the accounts that your child has been bullied. Take pictures of the injuries inflicted on the child if they are serious and file a police report. Also keep records of the doctor’s report if the situation calls for you to take legal action against the school or the bully.
Transfer your child to another school if your efforts to work with the administration have not borne fruit or if they appear unwilling to genuinely solve the problem. Your child may also feel traumatised staying in the school and it would be best to transfer them to a newer environment for a fresh start.
Seek professional counselling. This will depend on how long the bullying has taken place and the extent of emotional injury inflicted.
Monitor them online. Technology has made this easier by providing software that help you keep an eye on your child’s online activity without you having to snoop through their phone. You can also restrict the time that they spend online or putting in blockers that will prevent them from accessing social sites in order to prevent cyber bullying.
Get a support group. It will be helpful for you as a parent to get a support network from within your family and friends. They will help you make sense of your emotions and give more objective feedback on the manner in which you are approaching the situation.
More useful reading material on how you can deal with bullying can be found here.