By Dr. Marcel de Roos – Psychologist PhD
Bullying at school (children) or at the work place (adults) is a serious problem. It is a universal, non-cultural defined phenomenon. Research has shown that the prevalence and manifestation of bullying in the West and East is almost similar. It can be verbal, physical or electronic (this so called cyber bullying by computer or mobile phone has increased significantly). Men, children, and people with a lower education usually bully in a more physical manner. Women, adults and higher educated people usually use verbal forms which can be even more damaging.
With children, bullying is poignant and distressing. When one speaks with a child that is bullied your heart sinks. The loneliness, the hurt, seeing a little human being in this state is heart-rending. For parents it is upsetting too because it is hard to find adequate help. International studies state that in primary schools one out of four children say that they are sometimes bullied (and 4% say that it happens several times a week). In secondary schools 7% of the students are bullied.
There is a difference between teasing and bullying. Some teachers and parents are not able to perceive that. With teasing both parties are more or less equal and it is usually in a one to one situation. The teasing is mutual and both sides are assertive enough to speak up for themselves. With bullying there is no equivalence or balance of power. The bullying is often not one to one but with a group against one (or a few). The victim cannot defend himself/herself and is always targeted. Very often he/she cannot or dare not hit back or effectively talk back. Teasing stops after a while but bullying persists.
With bullying one usually thinks of the bully and the victim. But each student in class has a role in this process. Some of them are the co-bullies (wants to fit in, is usually insecure), the helper (takes a stand for the victim, is not afraid of the bully, is usually popular), the silent one (stays out, disapproves of the bullying but is too frightened to speak out), the sneaky one (approves the bullying but doesn’t take part, is afraid to be bullied himself, calls in others to support the bullying).
The consequences of being bullied for some time can be severe. The victim doesn’t know when the next harassment will come. He/she is often eight hours a day, five days a week busy with the mental preparation for the next attack. In the long term it can cause an inferiority complex, anxiety, chronic fear and insecurity, depression, loneliness, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide. It can influence mental and physical health for years. At school it affects the group because of the threatening and unsafe atmosphere. Children are anxious and there is distrust; as a consequence they are less open and spontaneous. At home it affects the family (parents and siblings) of the victim too.
To stop bullying it is important that the child should speak to the parents or a (school) counsellor. As a parent you should take your child seriously. Give them support and understanding (don’t condemn by saying “you should stand up for yourself”). Children find it difficult to tell that they are being bullied. Ask and try to listen, let your child tell his/her story. Discuss together with your child about what he/she can do to get out of this situation and only take action after you have talked about it. Contacting the parents of the bully is a possibility but very often they take their own child’s side. Talk with the teacher and ask what can be done at school. Do not blame the school but discuss the responsibilities of the school and try to find a solution together.
One solution is to teach (in a loving way) your child to be more assertive. Martial arts are a possibility but that is usually in a group with again the risk of bullying. A practical course to deal with bullying should contain three central themes: assertive body language, adequate reaction against bullying and self confidence. Children must learn to improve their posture, charisma, tone of voice and use of words, be able to say no and express their own opinion, to participate and work with each other. But above all a child should have an understanding and caring parent or counsellor. Such a person can teach the above mentioned qualities within the family or in a special group.
Cyber bullying is a new phenomenon. For parents the internet might be unknown territory, so it pays to begin to learn about the digital world of your child. Start chatting, MSN, surfing, searching and downloading. Install a good quality virus scanner and firewall. Read relevant literature about the internet, special filter software and what teenagers usually do there. For children up to 13 you should put the computer in a visible place to enable you to monitor and help out when something happens. Talk with your child about the internet. Tell about your own experiences and ask your child what they do and enjoy most.
When you know about the internet and you show interest, your child will confide in you when needed. Make an agreement with your child about the do’s and don’ts on the internet and place it next to the computer. Teach your child that he/she should never give personal information on the internet (use an alias and do not give names, addresses, phone numbers and the like). Be there when your child joins a website. Check the site and see what it is all about.
When your child is the victim of cyber bullying here are some tips. Ignore hate mail. When you don’t respond the bully will stop. Block the sender of the mail or MSN. When something uncomfortable happens in a chatroom just leave it (or log in with a different nickname). Don’t take it personally when somebody insults you. You probably don’t know that person and when you do, remember that children often say something out of boredom. But when the bullying continues talk it over with your parent or teacher. Save all the material because it is evidence and it can be useful for solving the problem. It is very important that your child talks about it and doesn’t feel guilty. Cyber bullying is annoying but it can be stopped and in many instances the perpetrator can be traced.