Unfortunately, bullying is not an uncommon experience for many of our children. It is a worldwide phenomenon, with prevalence rates ranging from 5% to 61%. In South Africa bullying appears to be on the rise.
However, collecting truly representative data is very difficult due to the complicated nature of this phenomenon, which involves a combination of psychological, social and cognitive factors. It is unclear whether there is truly an increase in the amount of bullying taking place, or whether there is simply an increased awareness around bullying and its potentially damaging consequences.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is a pattern of unwanted or aggressive behaviour which is meant to hurt others and in which a child uses their power over others to harm or control them. This power imbalance might come from having greater physical strength, but also might result from having power through popularity, or access to embarrassing information. Bullying can be:
- Verbal: such as name calling, taunting or unwelcome teasing
- Physical: such as hitting, spitting or tripping
- Social: purposefully excluding someone from a group, spreading rumours about them or telling other children not to be friends with them.
Bullying has always existed, however more recently bullying has extended its reach in the form of cyberbullying. Examples include mean text messages or emails, rumours or embarrassing pictures posted on social networking sights, or fake profiles created. The difference with cyberbullying is that it can happen around the clock and doesn’t require a face to face encounter.
“Cyberbullying: when a child is tormented, threatened, harassed or embarrassed by another using the internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.”
The growth and access to technology is not necessarily to blame for cyberbullying and can be used for a great deal of good. Children can use the internet and social media to connect with family and friends. It can help children access knowledge for schoolwork and is a means in which to explore and express their identity. However, there is the potential for a great deal of damage to be done. This happens without education on appropriate use, parental monitoring and a means in which to protect yourself.
Risk Factors, Effects and Potential Warning Signs
Bullying Risk Factors
No one factor puts a child at risk of being bullied or for bullying others. Regardless of gender, culture or socio-economic standing, anybody can potentially engage in bullying bahaviour or be bullied. Bullying happens in cities and rural towns, in private and public schools and is prevalent in both co-ed and single sex schools. However, depending on the environment certain children may be more at risk of being bullied.
Those more at risk might be perceived as being different, such as children who are overweight, new to a school, wear glasses or have some kind of disability. Children who do not have a good sense of self, are anxious or struggle with confidence, are sometimes perceived to be weak and therefore might be more at risk of being bullied. Socially isolated children and those who do not have many friends are also more easily targeted for bullying. However, having one or all of these risk factors does not mean a child will necessarily be bullied.
The Effects of Bullying
While bullying is an act of power, this does not mean to say that children who bully are necessarily bigger or stronger than those they bully. Remember that the power imbalance can come from a number of sources, including popularity, intelligence or physical strength.
Bullying not only affects the child who is being bullied, but can have strong negative consequences for the person doing the bullying. As well as for bystanders who witness bullying. Bullying is closely linked to significant negative effects on mental wellbeing and in its extreme form is linked to suicide.
Warning Signs of Bullying
Children are often reluctant to disclose information to others because they are embarrassed or afraid of the repercussions of telling a friend, teacher or even their parents. It is therefore important to speak to your child openly about bullying before it happens. However, there are some signs to potentially look out for which may suggest that your child is being bullied:
- Physical: unexplained injuries; sore tummy or headaches, changes in sleeping or eating habits, bedwetting
- Emotional: increased anxiety, sadness or anger; decrease in school performance, struggles to tolerate criticism, suicidal tendencies in sever instances
- Social: school refusal or school phobia, reluctant to socialise, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities such as sport or hobbies, loss or damaged personal items such as clothing, books, valuables.
These signs are also related to other emotional problems and so are essentially a sign that your child is experiencing some form of emotional trauma, but might not necessarily only be related to bullying.
What to do when I find out my child is being bullied?
Finding out that your child is being bullied is generally a difficult and highly emotive experience for parents. Often the immediate response is to want to take action and revenge against the child or children who are doing the bullying or even take action against their parents. In most cases this is probably not the best idea, as by acting on emotion, without reason or logic, you will most likely only make the situation worse. It is important to try and remain as calm as possible – easier said than done!
Talk About It
Firstly, talk to your child about it! If you suspect your child is being bullied or she tells you that she is, try to get as much information as possible. This is going to take patience, because children might struggle to speak about their experiences. Listen in a non-judgmental way and try not to solve your child’s problem for her. Ask questions around what happened and what emotions it evoked for her. Help her to feel heard and understood. Don’t label or judge the other child, because you are only hearing part of the story. Once you have the whole story you can decide on what it is you should do next.
Remember, the key here is to stay calm. If you go storming off to the school to tackle the child who is doing the bullying, your own child will not trust you with important information again and you won’t be doing his self-esteem or sense of agency any favours. Encourage your child to tell trustworthy adults when incidences of bullying occur, such as the teacher or sport’s coach.
Ask your child to come up with ideas on how to deal with the bullying situation in future. Let him come up with suggestions to what he might say or what actions he might take if it were to happen again. Don’t belittle his ideas, but rather ask questions about what the consequences of his idea might be. For example, retaliating with “leave me alone you jerk” might serve to increase aggression and lead to a fight. So guide gently, but be sure that he is the one who is coming up with the solutions and not you, as your child’s ability to problem solve in these instances will be a skill used throughout his life.
Speak to their Teacher
If your child has come home more than once in a week and mentioned being bullied or you have strong suspicions that it is taking place, make an appointment to see your child’s class teacher. Together you and the teacher can come up with a plan of action to be taken to eradicate the bullying and ensure your child’s safety and happiness at school. If the bullying persists then be sure to go to the school principal. It is fair to put it in the principal’s hands and ask for a plan and steps that will be taken to ensure the bullying is stopped. If your child is being physically bullied, then it is imperative to act immediately and to ensure your child’s safety.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
There are important ways in which parents can help their children before they bully other children or are bullied themselves. In this way we are aiming to prevent bullying rather than just react to it. Whilst children’s exposure to violence in our society and in the media might be having an impact on our children, it is important to remember that most importantly children are always looking to their parents to model behaviour. The way in which competition, frustration and aggression is dealt with in the home is more important than something like television, which is somewhat more removed from the child’s immediate life.
1. Your own relationships
It is important to think about how you use power in your own life to deal with those around you. Encourage respect and support of others. Remember that there is always an audience in the form of your child learning from your behaviour when you deal with frustration and conflict in your own life.
Furthermore, a healthy and positive relationship with your child will set the precedent for peer relationships. Through their relationship with you, your child can learn social skills, self-expression, as well as a sense of boundaries and respect.
Keep talking to your child. Often you will need to be the one to come forward and start the conversation.
2. Promote diversity
Promote diversity and acceptance of those that are different from yourself. Talk to you child about stereotypes and learning to accept and respect those of different races, religions and sexual orientations. Remember your child is constantly learning from your example, monitor the way you speak about those different from yourself.
3. Build self-esteem
Be sure to build your child’s self-esteem. The most basic ingredient for a positive self-esteem is unconditional love from their parent(s). This means that a child with positive self-esteem will feel loved for who she is rather than for what she is capable of or achieves. Remember to acknowledge effort and not just success. In this way our children learn to tackle tasks even if they appear difficult.