Helping children understand bullying is important. Whether they are being bullied themselves or seeing someone else go through it, having to go through it without emotional support can impact their personalities in a big way.
We really need to think through this conversation, journal it if necessary and then talk to kids. I find it relevant to state at this point that a one-time talk may not be enough. It may take several discussions before children understand what bullying is all about.
The popular definition and stigma around bullying has always worried me. The common idea is that those, who can’t defend themselves, are aggressed against, strong-armed, tormented or intimidated repeatedly. I have several practical concerns with this explanation.
Does bullying necessarily have to be aggressive? What about being ignored, or excluded? Getting picked on or being made fun off? According to the National Centre of Education Statistics, a study in 2017 reported about 20 percent of students in the ages 12–18 were bullied at school during the school year, out of which 13 percent reported being the subjected to rumours, being made fun of, called names, or insulted, which are non- aggressive in nature.
Does bullying have to be repetitive? What about the one-off incident where a child may feel tormented by someone? What if this child is getting bullying by different people or in different ways at different times, and there isn’t one repeat offender?
Does bullying necessarily have to take place with people who can’t defend themselves? There are children who can take care of themselves and yet get bullied in diverse ways.
There is an element of cultural diversity where some homes and families, certain jokes are acceptable, and in some others they may be perceived as passive aggression or oppression.
Similarly, subjectivity in terms of distress tolerance, where one child may feel easily bullied by being intimidated, laughed at or not invited to a birthday party while another child couldn’t care less. Or the age factor, where back slapping may be tolerable for a teenager but possibly be viewed as aggressive amongst younger children. All of these have to be taken into account. Take contextual behaviour, for instance, where actions on a field during competitive play, children are encouraged or even needed to be physically stoic, is another matter that complicates the topic.
Often parents have one rule towards bullying—“ not my kid”—which is understandable but not effective. Our reactions often discourage children from talking to us and that is not what we want. According to medicinenet.com, parents are aware their child is being bullied only about half the time.
Non-judgemental, non-reactive and open discussions are an effective way to prevent bullying. It also helps children get closure in case of such an incident, reduces bystander behaviour, or supporting the “more powerful party” attitude, while raising responsible and sensitised adults is to create a three-dimensional awareness of bullying. Discuss perceptions, understand individual, cultural and contextual differences, differentiate bullying actions from an unintended act of meanness to create a well rounded education on the subject.
As parents we have a responsibility to create a collective, empathetic and responsible understanding for our children to not just prevent bullying, but also being motivated to heal the hurt caused.
It is tough but important for adults to consider these nuances of bullying and have multiple conversations, openly discuss the topic, allowing for lots of questions and interpretations, and then we can hope for prevention, coping and closure.
It helps to state a “zero tolerance zone” and having concrete boundaries for those. Children must be taught good touch, bad touch, and that any form of violent, aggressive or sexual advance, any purposeful destruction of their property, and actions such as being spit or urinated upon are unacceptable. In such cases, it is most important they reach out to their parents and teachers. We can explain how this is the best option and in interest of both the bullied and the bully.
Then we have the complex task of including the subjective element in the definition and experience of bullying.
Talk about individual difference, cultural context, subjective perceptions, childhood disorders that may lead to behavioural issues and emotions. Each one discussed with relevant examples will help children differentiate between intentionally hurtful actions and accidents, or unintentionally caused distress. This does not mean we negate our child’s feelings. Subjective experience causing pain, anger, sadness or anxiety is absolutely necessary to address. This discussion will help our children voice boundaries and navigate through these challenges confidently, without feelings of victimisation and with empathetic assertion in future.
“While this may be okay for you, I don't like it, so please refrain from treating me this way,” is a perfect way of expressing that individual differences have to be respected in friendship and social interactions. This will not only help our children be assertive, but also empathetic and tolerant towards others.
Openly talk about options in perceptions, asking children how else can you explain what happened. What else could be a possible way of looking at this, all the while giving them the confidence that their individual experience must be respected, they are not wrong in having emotions about it and that they must clearly state their likes and dislikes. This practice helps prevent the feelings of victimisation and children carrying forward baggage from the incidence.
Children often worry that talking to an adult may earn them a reputation of being a croaker, quibbler or a grouch. Empowering them with strategies to reach out such as “we talk about the actions and not the person”, “we lay down our boundaries with the help of an adult”, “it takes courage to stand up against a bully”, and “the intention is to make things better not worse” may help. Children who bully also need empathetic adult intervention to take corrective action and that allowing adults in, will help both parties is a concept worth explaining at length.
Bullying behaviour often carries forward into adulthood. Impact of both being a bully as a child and being bullied or hazed lasts well into adult behaviours.
The discussion of bullying is thus a crucial one to reform our views, attitude and actions. It must include the topics of empathy, fixing matters with a growth mind set, community responsibility and the power in apologising for mistakes made, which will lay down a strong foundation not just for a happy childhood but also for a healthy adult life.