A few months ago, my daughter was bullied in school. It affected her so badly that she would complain of stomach aches due to fear. I was completely at sea, worried and heartbroken. She is a sweet and gentle child who simply cannot snap back and she constantly reprimands herself for not being able to stand up for herself.
I was worried. Do I intervene or get her to deal with it? This is every parent’s dilemma. Yes, we need to be our children’s biggest supporters but there is also the fact that they need to learn how to deal with real-life scenarios on their own.
Bullying can happen in schools, in sand pits, play grounds, and in apartment complexes. It can be physical and brutal, or it can be more subtle yet equally crushing. There are also many instances of children who control groups and even dictate whom their classmates should be friends with and whom they should exclude.
Also Read: 5 parenting experts to follow on Instagram
Many children are bullied about their weight, height, and complexion. Sometimes children can also be targets because they are high performers, or because they come from lower income backgrounds in otherwise expensive schools. The scenarios are endless, and the repercussions sometimes last for years.
“My daughter was aggressively bullied since middle school about her weight, her looks, and for being introverted,” says Kriti Joshi, parent to a now 23-year-old daughter. “She told me about this and I told her to deal with it and be strong. In retrospect, I wish I had spoken to the school or even changed schools. She once opened up about this to her teachers, who just told her to stop all her drama.” Joshi’s daughter moved on and successfully graduated from a top university, but Joshi says that doing nothing about this “is a regret I think I will take with me to my grave.”
According to parent-coach, teacher, and corporate leadership trainer Neelu Kapur, power structures exist in our world and we cannot wish them away. “We can help children understand that though power structures are present, they cannot draw their self-worth by belonging to the right one,” she says. “Help them develop other skills, involve them in activities where they can discover their strengths, and meet other children.”
What do you do if your child is bullied? As a parent, my first instinct was to go meet the bullying child’s parents and have it out with them. I even supplied my daughter with snarky replies she could use, but Kapur insists these impulses can be counterproductive. “Be very supportive, let your kids know you are there for them but encourage them to deal independently with their bullies,” she says, adding that she does not “advise that parents intervene unless there are serious consequence for their child’s physical, mental, or emotional health,” Kapur says. “Help them talk about and label their feelings from a young age. Have an open dialogue with your kids but do not try to fix all of their issues. They will either learn to deal with the problem or develop good coping strategies.”
If bullying does get out of hand, however, Kapur advises that parents meet with the school team, especially the counsellor, and try to work towards solutions.
When my daughter and I met her school teachers, they were supportive and gentle, even insisting that they are working with the bully and not placing all the responsibilities on my daughter’s shoulders. In the end, my daughter asked if they could change her seat and if she could see the counsellor whenever she felt worried or anxious. They readily agreed.
Some children learn to ignore bullying but this does not always work, especially if the bullying behaviour is constant and follows a pattern. Why do children bully and what can we do about it?
Bullying is often a learned behaviour that has its roots in the environment at home, says Kapur. “Parents unfortunately don’t always understand their responsibility in creating bullies. Censor yourselves when discussing colleagues, peers, and seniors. How do you behave with your household help, vendors, or other service providers? Do you show respect to your spouse? Children are constantly watching. We need to give them more time and positive attention.”
Anusha Velan is a single parent whose ex-husband recently remarried. “During the first Covid lockdown, my son stayed away from me and spent more time in his father’s place, who put a lot of pressure on him,” says Velan. “I then saw him bullying or bossing over other children in our apartment (building). In his class, there was a boy who only felt safe wearing a hat all the time and my son and his friends would target him.”
After a few sessions with a parent counsellor, both Velan and her ex-husband realised that there was an unmet need in their son — the child sorely needed a safe space. “As parents, we have now changed our behaviour,” she says. “We have established a better connection with our son. He now tells us everything. Instead of advising or lecturing him, we listen. It truly needed a deep dive on our part and we still have a long way to go, but things have improved a great deal,” Velan says.
Also Read: Parenting is all about making connections
When left unsupported, bullying can affect children for years. Sathya Gowda, a 39-year-old parent of a 11-year-old and 7-year-old, says that the bullying in school impacted her so much that its effects lasted well into adulthood.“I drew into my shell and started believing that something must be wrong with me,” she says. “I told my parents but they asked me to take it in my stride. I wanted to ask them how I could do that. I then developed a victim mentality for every situation even during adulthood and it took therapy to get me through it all.”
Bullying behaviour can be toxic. And instead of telling children to take it on the chin and move on, we should teach them how to remove themselves from toxic scenarios. This will help them when they are adults, especially in knowing when and how to self-advocate and hold strong boundaries. “We need to give our kids constant reassurance and support so that they stand on their own and learn from situations,” says Kapur. “It can be hard to see your kids fall but it is a real moment of pride when you watch them deal with situations positively.”
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist who lives in Mumbai