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Spelling out the B-word

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Parents and teachers need to know the signs of bullying and familiarise themselves with the various ways to tackle it, writes Jason Broderick, wellbeing coach and counselling psychologist at Discovery Bay International School.

Michelle, 13, was horrified when she was told about her parents’ transfer to the Hong Kong branch. Having to leave her friends, her life – nothing could be worse. But it had been a few months now and all the nightmarish scenarios she had pictured in her head had turned out to be, as her mum always said, ‘blown out of proportion!’ She had thought that making new friends was going to be difficult but the other students were being so nice to her. She thought going to friends’ houses or being asked to sleepovers would be a thing of the past but, once again, she was wrong. It all seemed to be very pleasant. Then, overnight her world changed.

The group of friends who seemed so nice, no longer wanted to eat lunch together. She wasn’t invited to the usual after-school trip to the local coffee shop. Michelle began to cry herself to sleep every night. Rumours about her began to develop and the pattern of behaviour from her peers continued for the next two months. It was obvious that certain peers were going above and beyond to torment Michelle regularly. Academic decline and a loss in appetite finally got the attention of her busy parents and her school. Fortunately, it wasn’t too late and Michelle’s parents and school were proactive in supporting her through a rather unpleasant time in her life.

Unfortunately, the kind of bullying that Michelle experienced does happen. In national surveys, most kids and teens say that they have been affected by bullying either directly or as a bystander. Bullying can turn everyday tasks like going to the bus stop to get to school, or having to buy lunch at the canteen into a living nightmare for some kids. As many adults know, bullying can leave deep emotional scars and, in extreme situations, it can involve violent threats or someone getting seriously hurt.

Fortunately, most schools are equipped with the resources and knowledge to assist students who experience bullying. But it is not always easy to identify a victim or a bully as many young people choose not to ‘speak up.’ Do you have the skills and appropriate actions to assist your child, if they were involved in such behaviours?

Bullying or teasing?

Most young people have been teased by a sibling or a friend at some point. It is often carried out in a playful, friendly and mutual way, and both parties find it funny. However, when teasing becomes hurtful, unkind and constant, it crosses the line into bullying and needs to stop.

Bullying is intentional tormenting in physical, verbal, or psychological ways. It can range from hitting, shoving, name calling, threats and mocking, to extorting money and possessions. Some kids bully by manipulation, shunning others and spreading rumours about them. More so now, social media is used as a tool to taunt, ostracise or hurt others through direct or indirect messaging.

It is important to take bullying seriously and not just brush it off as something that kids have to ‘tough out.’ The effects can be serious and can affect kids’ sense of safety and self-worth. In severe cases, bullying has contributed to tragedies, such as suicides and school shootings.

Signs of bullying

Unless your child tells you, it is difficult to know if he/ she is suffering from bullying. You may notice your child acting differently, seeming anxious, not eating and experiencing broken sleep. If your child seems moodier or more easily upset than usual, or he/ she starts avoiding certain situations like an extracurricular club or anything that used to bring enjoyment, it might be time to delve deeper.

If you suspect bullying but your child is reluctant to open up, find opportunities to broach the issue in an everyday conversation. For a younger child using social stories or picture books is a helpful starter and can lead to questions like, “Have you ever seen this happen?” or “Have you ever experienced this?” You might want to talk about any experiences you or another family member had at that age. It is much harder with adolescents but that is why an open communicative relationship is integral during the years of seven to 11. As parents, we need to be friendly and guiding – and there to advise.

With adolescents, we need to continually let them know that if they’re being bullied or harassed or see it happening to someone else, they need to talk to someone about it. They may choose to look like they’re not interested but they will be listening, and it’s that comfort of knowing you are there which will allow a conversation to happen.

Assisting your child

If your child tells you about being bullied, listen calmly and offer comfort and support. Young people are often reluctant to open up because they feel embarrassed and ashamed, or worry that their parents will be disappointed, upset, angry, or reactive.

Sometimes kids feel like it’s their own fault, that if they looked or acted differently it wouldn’t be happening, and some kids worry that if the bully finds out that they ‘told,’ the bullying will get worse. Others are worried that their parents won’t believe them, or do anything about it. Still more worry that their parents will urge them to fight back when they’re scared to.

In the first instance, praise your child for doing the right thing by talking to you. Remind your child that he/ she isn’t alone now. Emphasise that it’s the bully who is behaving badly not him. Reassure your child that you will figure out a solution together.

Once you have the details, begin the process. Let someone at your child’s school, such as his/ her teacher, know about the situation. There is often someone in a position to monitor the situation and take steps which can prevent further problems. If the problem isn’t occurring at school then inform the similar person in charge of that context, for instance the coach of a sports team. As a parent, you can help your child learn how to deal with bullying, and it may be tempting to tell him/ her to fight back. After all, you’re angry that your child is suffering and maybe you were told to ‘stand up for yourself’ when you were young. Or you may worry that your child will continue to suffer at the hands of the bully, and think that fighting back is the only way to put a bully in his/ her place.

But it’s important to advise kids not to respond to bullying by fighting or bullying back. Go down that route and the situation can quickly escalate into violence, trouble, and someone getting injured. Instead, children need to firmly and clearly tell the bully to stop, then walk away. They need to tell an adult and ask them to help stop the bullying.

What’s vital is that children talk about what they’re experiencing with someone they trust. Parents, teachers, siblings, or friends may offer some helpful suggestions, and even if they can’t fix the situation, the child being bullied will feel a little less alone.

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