Understanding bullying and working together towards positive solutions
An Australian definition of bullying is explained as “an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that cause physical or psychological harm”, Department of Education, 2015. A definition is important in clarifying a largely misunderstood interpretation of what bullying actually is.
Bullying is rife and powerful in schools in Australia, with incidents starting from a young age right through to high school. Face to face (physical or verbal), covert (spreading rumours, leaving people out deliberately to hurt them) and cyberbullying (as a result of increasing use of social media) are all cause for concern. A person who has been bullied often develops increased depression and anxiety, poorer school performance, low self-esteem, decrease in physical health and risks of isolating themselves because they feel weak, embarrassed or ashamed. It can also lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts. If we do not deal with these experiences and consequences, these thoughts and feelings can be carried right through to adult life and can contribute to the decisions we make about our lives and relationships.
To understand the seriousness of this, here are some statistics; 1 in 4 students are bullied at school (an estimated 910 000 children), 218 000 bullying victims become bullies themselves, and in a recent online study, more than 50% of people felt a lack of confidence that schools are dealing with bullying effectively (Relationships Australia, March 2018). When an organisation condones it by failing to put effective preventative and responsive measures into place, a culture emerges where society says that hurting others is okay, bullies gain power and the bullied experience a decrease in social, emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing. All forms of bullying should be taken seriously, and the best outcomes for any young person occur when the school, parents, young people and other settings work and communicate well together.
Nobody deserves to be bullied. Everyone has the right to feel safe at all times. Many clients over the years have told me that they feel they deserved to be bullied, as they themselves felt insecure about certain issues. From primary school all the way through to high school, Gill* said that she felt different due to her freckles and curly hair, and her quirky humour and personality. She saw herself as different to others and shared that she expected to be bullied. Together we have been working through the idea that being different is okay and building self-esteem and appreciation of who she is.
Although some young people may feel this way, nobody deserves to be treated badly by others. Bullying is about a wrong choice made by the bully, not a reflection of an imperfection in the person being bullied. The responsibility for bullying always falls on the shoulders of the bully. Johnny*, a client for 4 years, shared that he wanted to protect one of the bullies who called him “fat” and “stupid” for a number of years, as he felt sorry for him and did not want him to get into trouble. He also did not want to be known as the school snitch. We worked through ways in which Johnny could have adult support but also help the young person who was bullying him to improve on his social skills and sense of responsibility.
There are many reasons why some young people are the target of a bully. These include being in the wrong place at the wrong time, personality differences, jealousy due to academic, family, sporting or social success, being shy or introverted, having fewer or no friends, unique physical features, illness or disability, sexual orientation, religious or cultural beliefs, race, class, or something seen as different to the norm. Once again, it is imperative to remember that any of the above is in no way an indication of the bullied young person having done something wrong. Bullies tend to select someone who is more likely to show a reaction such as crying or getting angry, or less likely to fight back because they may feel different. What can stop the bullying is how one chooses to react, from the beginning or when this has been going on for some time.
So how can we as a society, on a community and individual basis, help?
According to the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, an investment in preventative programmes in schools is essential. Schools with an emphasis on wellbeing encourage resilience, which helps young people to know how to deal with stressful situations in a healthy way. Schools have a better success rate of young people reporting bullying incidents when they create an environment in which children know that they are supported and heard. Other success stories in schools where bullying has decreased include teacher education on how to handle bullying empathetically through training in conflict resolution, a variety of diverse organised activities for children to keep busy in a healthy way (including sports, music, games days at lunch time, chess, library access and choir), introducing a student mediation team within the school for bullying incidents, being clear on the school’s position on bullying, creating clear and consistent rules or accepted behaviours within the classroom, following through with healthy and effective consequences and communicating well with parents within the school community (from both the bullied and bullying sides).
HINTS: Keep students interested and occupied with a stimulating variety of choices and be aware of social on goings within the classroom and on the playground.
If you are being bullied, your natural reaction may be to close off to trusted friends and adults in your life, and to feel lonely and isolated. This is because the bully has contributed to you feeling like you have no power to change what is going on. Bullies want to know that they have a control over you. Every bully has insecurities and unhappiness within themselves for different reasons. As a result of their frustrations, they feel the need to hurt others, so that they can gain a sense of control back in their lives.
Young adults that I have worked with who were bullied at school all look back at their experiences and say that they wish they had told someone who could help them feel less alone. A recent client, Max*, was being bullied by a group of boys at the park after school. He held a lot of anger within and eventually told his parents what was going on. Once the truth of the bullying was out, together, the school and parents could help Max to work through better ways to deal with the situation, set some consequences for the bullies, and encourage Max to understand and let go of some of the anger.
Following some research by talking with clients who have been bullied, as well as comments written by young people who have been bullied, here are some suggestions that one can try:
Do not go to quiet places alone for a while, while this bullying stuff is being sorted out. Stay close to other children and adults inside and outside of school. Gill* reported that once she had made connections with a few friends at school, the bullying lessened and never happened when she was around her supportive friends. If you are catching a bus or train, sit close to people you trust or around other adults. Bullies tend to pick on others when they are alone.
Pretend to ignore them, even if it is very hurtful. Do not mimic, name call, swear or touch the bully. Retaliating by stooping to the level of an aggressive person only escalates the situation as this feeds into the energy of the bullying and prolongs the incidents. Learn to walk away if you can. You can react when you are away from the bully if you need to cry, scream or punch a punching bag. The reaction is what the bully is looking for.
If you are able to respond with a joke, use humour to defuse the situation. For example, “You must really like me to be giving me so much attention”, when someone continues to bully. When Johnny* responded with “Yes, when I go bungee jumping, I break the bridge” to a bully in the school change room, he reported that the bully was surprised by his confident response and never bullied him when changing for sport again. This may be very hard to do, particularly if one feels insecure about the very things they are being bullied for, but it would certainly show resilience and strength, and the bully would no longer receive the reaction they are going for. This works even better in front of other peers.
Practice reacting in an empowered way with parents, siblings, therapists, teachers or a friend. Use words that express disapproval for the behaviour with a tone of confidence and eye contact if possible. Some examples of what you could say are, “Do you ever say anything nice?”, “If I valued your opinion, which I don’t, that would hurt” or “Here comes another mean comment”. Even if you feel scared, this shows confidence.
Research shows that if a child has at least one friend, the chances of being bullied reduce dramatically. When there is a friend to back you up, others are less likely to target you as there will be someone there to help out. Talk to parents, teachers, siblings, peers or therapists to explore who you are and what you love, what your hobbies are and what makes you happy, and work on finding places where you can feel safe and fit in. Get involved in school activities at lunch time or after school. This can be anything from music, to sport, drama to chess, card games to library. This creates an opportunity to act as a role model, make friends, to have support and to keep out of the bully’s way.
If you feel unsafe or are finding it hard to get away from the bully, talk to an adult that you trust. It is often very scary to tell a teacher or parent what is going on. But nobody should ever have to experience bullying on their own. Talking to your parents means that you can share your fears and worries. They may be able to help guide you with some strategies to use on a daily basis and make sure that you are safe. Telling a teacher, or getting your parents to communicate with a teacher, counsellor or year advisor, can create action and change. There should always be at least one teacher who you have a positive relationship with. Many clients have gone to sports teachers, English, Science and so on. The teachers could be aware and on the lookout for any inappropriate behaviour. They can make sure to discreetly separate you in classes. If they catch the bully, it would not be because you have told on them, it would be because they are looking out for it and have caught them in the act.
Building up physical strength helps us to feel better about ourselves both physically and emotionally. You could choose to get involved in a martial art, buy a punching bag and gloves, find a personal trainer, exercise with a family member or friend, join a running group or a big or small gym. There are also many programmes online through YouTube and other sights, where you can start an exercise routine that you love. Exercise releases endorphins, which naturally help us to feel good, plus there is the bonus of feeling stronger which builds confidence.
Become an upstander. If you see another person being bullied, go and talk to them to see if they are okay, tell an adult who cares, or if it is not threatening to you, speak up for them in front of everyone.
As much as bullies can make many people feel unworthy and scared, just know that there is always a way out. These include school and parent involvement, choosing another school if it gets too bad and nobody is acting for change, and sticking with friends who care and whom you trust.
HINTS: Find the courage within to know that you are amazing, that you can stand up for yourself, whether it is walking away, confronting through humour or staying close to good friends. Trusted adults can help you feel less alone and guide you through what to do.
If your child comes to you to tell you that they are being bullied, know that this is a big step for them. Listen empathetically. Hear the full story before reacting. Never tell your child to “just ignore it”. Teaching children to do nothing teaches them to accept the aggressive peer’s behaviour and remain disempowered. This could have long term results of low self-worth and feelings of loneliness. Although you will feel angry, do not respond with anger, as this may worsen the situation. Think things through, talk as a family and work out the best approach. Once you have calmly come up with some solutions, ask them what they want you to do. Encourage them to approach a trusted staff member at the school, who will deal with the incidents in a sensitive manner. If you have tried through the teacher and then the principal, and there is no change at school, contact the state department or local counsellor to help look into anti bullying action. You may also want to consider a move if the bullying persists. Think about a smaller, more nurturing school, or a place where your child already has other friends.
If you suspect that your child is unhappy, there are some signs that they may be being bullied. These include physical injuries, unexplained bruises and scratches, possessions going missing, reluctance to go to school, moodiness and withdrawal. It is important not to make assumptions and talk gently to your child.
HINTS: Always take your child seriously. Encourage open communication through general light chats in the car, at the dinner table and before bed. Observe their behaviours and trust your instincts. Be their advocate.
We do not have to walk this earth alone. There is always someone who can help, we just have to find the courage within to reach out and talk to someone. This can make all the difference. Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing that I can do will change the structure of the universe. But maybe by raising my voice I can help the greatest of all causes — goodwill among men and peace on earth”.
If you require urgent assistance or feel you cannot go to a trusted adult straight away, please call:
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Lifeline 13 11 14
In the case of child abuse call Child Protection Services 132 111