For a child who is bullied, there are a plethora of emotions they are left to struggle with; fear, embarrassment, helplessness, rejection and worthlessness are just a few. These are real emotions that can lead to serious stress-related health problems. Our children deserve our protection, but we often excuse these experiences as a part of growing up. I would argue that these experiences are not a necessary part of growing up; families, schools and communities could be making the eradication of bulling behaviours a higher priority than it currently is. I believe the lack of action is because we are at a loss of what we can do both for the bully and the bullied.
Developing our ability to recognize bullying is key, both at home and at school. Most of us know that bullies can attack their victims physically by punching, kicking, restraining, spitting and so on. But there is the lesser known form of emotional bullying, which is harder to identify. This can take the form of insults, rumours, slander, threats, exclusion, name-calling and so on. This form of bullying leaves lasting invisible scars on the victim and changes who they are and who they become.
Recognizing the signs, at home or in school, that someone is being rejected, targeted or isolated can be very challenging. Parents may see a change in behaviour such as mood swings, outbursts, depressed demeanour or reports of feeling too sick to go to school. The victim may be so embarrassed that they act as if they are having the time of their life or that nothing is wrong.
Parents can do their part by talking to their children about their social life. Often times we ask our children how their day was and they will reply with the typical “fine”. If you want a specific answer from your child ask a specific question, such as, “Who did you eat lunch with today?”, “Did you sit with anyone on the bus?” If your child discloses social difficulties to you, say as little as possible. Listen first. Avoid judgement by saying things like, “You should have never hung out with those kids in the first place.” Don’t support victimized thinking through statements like, “You poor thing, this is so unfair.” Instead ask questions such as, “How are you dealing with this?”, “Do you have a plan?”
Help your child be proactive, and identify why they have become a target. Are there circumstances within their control that they can change or do? Sometimes bullies will target an individual that stands out and sometimes the reason is not clear. Teach the bullied child to problem solve. Help the victim identify three possible plans of action and then the worst possible outcome for all three plans. What possible outcome will they be able to live with? This will become their plan of action. Does the child need help with their social skills, hygiene, weight, appearance or grades? Perhaps it is a matter of getting the victim help for dealing with a senseless rejection. In any case, ignoring the problem will not lead to a solution.
In school, the bullied child may show externalizing behaviours such as; outbursts, fights or a poor attitude, each as a result of the frustration they feel. The victim may also develop internalizing behaviours such as withdrawal, a slip in grades, increased absences or self harm. School personnel should be trained in identifying the signs and encouraged by their administrators to follow through in the reporting process. Every school should have procedures and policies in place to deal with situations surrounding bullying. An extra effort to communicate these policies to all parents, students and staff should be taken. Students will only regard these policies as seriously as school personnel take them. If we throw our hands up and say there is nothing the school can do, then the message we are sending is that we have lost control of our student’s behaviour and we are not concerned.
Parents can ask schools about their policies surrounding bulling issues and schools can keep the lines of communication open with parents. When parents and school work together and support each other, change comes sooner rather than later.
Angela E. Rudderham is the Director of Turning Tides Community Outreach. She also developed Bridgeway Academy’s Behaviour and Social Skills program. For more information about Bridgeway's day school program or Turning Tides’ social skills services for students, parents or educators, please contact us at 1-888-435-3232.