Sunday 15 September 2019

It's our job as parents to look after broken and unsure children

Bullying is so widespread that it is likely anyway that one day your family will be involved in some sort of bullying incident
Bullying is so widespread that it is likely anyway that one day your family will be involved in some sort of bullying incident
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

Lard-ass, blubber, pizza face, special needs, slag, easy spread, loner, freak, beware of the dog... In the world we live in today, sticks and stones may break our bones yet words can do much more damage than that - words can sometimes destroy us.

Once we grow up and leave adolescence behind us, most adults simply aren't subject to this level of name calling - we've learned to be better than that. However, bullying during the teenage years can be so spiteful, cruel and demeaning that it's almost too horrible for adults to even contemplate.

But adults need to contemplate it because with one in four Irish teenagers reporting incidents of cyberbullying, it appears to be becoming more prevalent.

The intense rage that erupts in an adult when their kids are attacked is understandable - completely destructive and unhelpful but very understandable. Some parents charge in with the delicacy of an Uzi, yelling at everyone in sight, while other parents are so overwhelmed that they try to underplay the situation and advise the child to "ignore the bullies" or to simply "laugh it off".

Could you "ignore the bullies" if you received several texts every day advising you that "everybody hates you and wishes you were dead"? Extricating your child from a bullying situation is a long and complex process and parents need to learn to commit to playing the long game on this one.

Wherever there are large groups of children gathered, there is inevitably a pecking order. The kids are continuously assessing and reassessing their place in the world - who has the power and who hasn't. And, because they're immature and some kids just can't handle their power, it can go to their heads and they can become like Hitler in his bunker, crazed and monomaniacal, beginning an 'I hate Rebecca club' just because they can.

Thankfully there are many workable solutions to the problem of bullying. If everyone involved learns appropriate social skills - the bully needs to learn to contain their dark side, the bullied need to learn how to handle difficult people, the bystanders need to learn to have the courage of their convictions and the parents need to learn to control their fury - then the bullying can be significantly reduced.

I remember a child in my school opened her locker to find that some of her fellow students had gone to the trouble of buying maggots in a fishing tackle shop for the sole purpose of planting them in this girl's locker. Another girl used to get tampons thrown at her every day - on the bus, in the school room, in the canteen and in the locker room. Every single day. Apparently it was very funny if you viewed it in the right way.

I'm ashamed to say that when I was nine years old my friends and I used to follow a certain teenager up the street calling her "Spacer" and "Freak" every time she walked home from school. I clearly remember that I hated bullying her; I was well aware that we were ruining her life, but I was the classic bystander, trailing along haplessly, very uncomfortable with it all but not really having the social skills to call a halt to the situation.

At the time I couldn't understand why she didn't fight back. I used to wonder, "why doesn't she just stop us?". It is only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I realise that a group of small spiteful kids can feel very overpowering - especially if you're 14 and you feel insecure about your looks.

It is our job as parents to look out for the broken and unsure kids, the kids who are filled with self-loathing because they believe they are worthless, and ugly; the kids who feel all alone in the world, friendless and hopeless. It is not enough anymore to simply heave a sigh of relief that your child isn't involved in bullying. Bullying is so widespread that it is likely anyway that one day your family will be involved in some sort of bullying incident.

We need to encourage everyone to become 'upstanders' instead of bystanders. 'Upstanders' is the new term that is being used to describe people who are willing to take action in defence of others. People need to learn that trailing along haplessly as bullies destroy people's lives simply isn't good enough anymore.

As our own Edmund Burke, the 18th Century politician and philosopher, pointed out: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Stella O'Malley is a psychologist and author of 'Cotton Wool Kids'

Irish Independent

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