Bullying: how can parents support their child?
At the first meeting of CMTC-OVM Canada on April 23 2016, Debbie Cockerton a child behavioural therapist in Peterborough Ontario gave a presentation on bullying. She provided some useful tips for both parents and teachers to curb bullying and deal with its effects on young children. Below is a short version of her presentation.
What is bullying?
Bullying is something intentional. The perpetrator tries to harm the victim emotionally or physically by what he/she says or what he/she does.
Bullying is an imbalance of power. There are many different ways of imbalance. It could be that someone in the class is bigger than the other students or someone who is socially more adept or is at another school or in a higher grade. There’s not an equal footing between the peers.
Bullying is not conflict between peers. Peers will have disagreements and arguments with their classmates or friends but this is how they learn problem solving skills and resolution skills. It’s an even field. It’s not where someone has power over another person. Bullying is also not the friendly teasing that happens between peers.
Bullying is when someone says a nickname or phrase that obviously hurts the other persons feeling. It is also visible from the body language from the victim. The moment the bully realizes that his phrase or nickname inflicts emotional harm on the victim, he or she will file that information away and use it again some other time. This way the bully builds a database of insults for the victim.
Many different types of bullying
Verbal bullying is the teasing and the taunting, the name calling. It can be done in isolation - just the bully and the victim - or in front of other people. The goal is to wear down the self-esteem of the victim.
Physical abuse can vary form tripping somebody on purpose, knock down the books out of their hands, spitting on them, hitting or kicking them, throwing things at them.
Social bullying happens more often with girls than with boys. It is also called bullying by exclusion. Those are the cliques that girls but also boys have that are built up to exclude other people.
In cyber bullying perpetrators think that they can bully (somewhat) anonymously in their interactions over the internet without the fear of getting caught. It basically means sending (threatening) messages to the victim by a cell phone (texting, whatsapp), or putting negative texts on facebook pages and other social media. Fortunately there are different ways of tracking back the messages to the sender. Cyber bullying can very easily wear down someones self-esteem.
Effects of bullying on the victim
Bullying can give a sense of isolation in the victim. The peers don’t want to hang out with them because they are afraid to be bullied also. The victim has a lower self-esteem because when you’re being told that you are stupid, that nobody wants to play with you and that nobody does play with you, your self-esteem can totally plummet. They often don’t want to go to school because that’s where the bullying takes place. They use psycho-somatic excuses (like: I have a headache or stomach ache) to avoid school. The stress of being bullied also can create these headaches or stomach aches. They may feel very uncomfortable in group situations because there the bullying may start again. They have physical stress symptoms: not being able to sleep at night, wanting to sleep to much, the stomach aches etc.
Anybody can be a victim. Someone who has a lack of social network (so nobody to stand up for them). Someone with low self-esteem (when a child has a disability he/she may feel that he/she is not the same as other children). The perpetrator will feel that the victim is emotional about his/her disability and will sees that as an easy target. A typical victim is also someone who is less likely to report.
The typical bully is someone who enjoys seeing someone else in distress. He/she laughs when someone else trips over something and falls, but doesn’t help. The bully is able to read body language and facial expressions very well (even the slightest drop in the shoulder). The bully is also quick to anger and acts impulsive. They blame other people and don’t take responsibility for their own behaviour. They lack empathy and may feel superior (for example because they don’t have the disability of the victim).
Bystanders are often part of the problem. Only standing there and watching the bully and victim already gives the bully feedback. When they don’t disapprove of the behaviour of the bully or even encourage the bully then he/she certainly will continue.
What can parents do?
Be a role model for your child. Your values have to come through very clear. Children absorb a lot of what you say if you even think they are not listening. Be careful what you say and do. Show respect for everyone and show you don’t do bullying.
Talk openly with you child. For example if you’re watching a tv-show and someone is being bullied and there’s a laughtrack in the background talk about it with your child. Ask them what they think the victim really feels. You have to build up an open communication with your child to be able to help them. Support your child in reporting bullying at school. Find out which system they use at your child’s school.
Another way of being able to handle bullying is building up your child’s empathy as well. Let your child know that not all kids have a safe, nice home. Some children come with a lot of ‘baggage’ to school. Some of them have a difficult situation at home that isn’t conducive to positive mental health for the bully. Bullies are bullies for a reason. They possibly are feeling really bad on the inside. They are not able to deal with other people very well. Separate what the bully is doing to you and don’t take it personally. Realize that if it wasn’t you they are picking on they would probably pick on someone else.
Teaching to ignore
Since the bully is out to get a reaction you should teach your child to ignore. Often this is not so easy. Children may be able to ignore by not saying anything, but they may stamp away or their eyebrows are down or their hands are in a fist. The bully sees this and feels he/she is getting their payoff. Make sure that your child feels comfortable to report bullying without fear of retaliation from the bully.
It is very useful to practice through role-play how you want your child to respond to bullying. Also practice effective ignoring (blank face, relaxed shoulders) and practice what to say to report bullying. Especially the language is important. There is a big difference when a child says to a teacher: ‘Tyler is bugging me again.’ As opposed to: ‘Tyler keeps on calling me names which really hurts my feelings and despite I have asked him to stop he keeps on doing it.' Use appropriate words and tone of voice.
Practice empathy and positive self-talk and stress that it’s not your child's fault, it’s the bullies fault. It’s the way the bully treats people. Make them see the good in other people.
Build up your child’s self-esteem: make sure they understand they have a lot of skills and abilities. Because they have a disability, it doesn’t mean they are no less a person. Built up their social network. This could be done in conjunction with teachers, play buddies, or older students that can look out for younger students. Organize play dates, go to community organized programs to alleviate some of those negative feelings they may have if they are being bullied at school. Have your child recognize that you are part of the team along with the teacher which hopes to reduce the bullying. Your child may be the target but he/she doesn’t need to become the victim.