Wednesday 12 December 2018

What you can do if your child is being bullied

Bullying is not a freak occurrence. In most classrooms, one in 10 of the children will be socially isolated. These are the children who are most at risk of bullying. As we face into a new school year, psychotherapist and author Stella O'Malley explains the cliques of childhood groups, why children bully, why they get bullied, and what you can do if your child is a bully, or is bullied

Every day, some children eat their lunch in toilet cubicles in fear of bullies. Getty Images
Every day, some children eat their lunch in toilet cubicles in fear of bullies. Getty Images
Stella O'Malley

Bullying is all about power, really - bullies like to feel in control of the social situation, so they try to obliterate anyone they find unsettling or problematic in any way.

And yet many of our greatest leaders have been motivated by a high need for power, so not everyone who is attracted to power is a potential bully. Qualities such as moral engagement, courage, tolerance and compassion are the traits that distinguish great leaders from brutal bullies, and these are the traits that parents should try to cultivate in their power-crazy kids. Not only because the parent will be helping their child to become a leader who might go on to be inspirational, but, more importantly, because the pain and destruction that mindless bullying causes to both children and adults is profound.

Every day, some schoolchildren eat their lunch in toilet cubicles in fear of bullies; others spend their entire break and lunch hanging around their lockers because there is no one to hang out with; countless kids immediately panic when they hear the familiar ping from their mobile and they realise that yet another so-called friend has posted spiteful venom about them on social media. It is relentless, and it is deeply damaging.

Kids are usually targeted by bullies because they stand out for some reason. It is a natural stage of the adolescent's development to become preoccupied with their inclusion into the social group, and so, as a result, many teenagers become rabidly cliquey. This is why they feel unsettled by anyone who stands out from the herd, by the kids who are visually different or have certain characteristics, or a strong personality that isn't easily assimilated into the narrow confines of teenage life.

If you look around any group of people, you will see the quiet, passive types; the loud, dominant types; the easy-going, conforming types, and the ones who are different in some way. Usually (although sadly, not always) adults don't pick on easy prey - most of us have learnt to be better than that - but teenage bullies and their sidekicks often haven't yet matured enough to care about the impact of their behaviour. Parents can help their children by building their self-awareness and by learning how their children might need to handle their environment, if they are to survive adolescence without attracting the attention of a potential bully.

In early childhood, socialising is relatively easy; whoever is nearby and whoever likes the same things are considered the child's 'friends'. Very little is asked of these so-called friends - all that is required, really, is that the child shows up, learns to share (sometimes) and doesn't hit their friends.

In middle childhood, friendship becomes a little more complex, as children at this age wish to play by the rules, and so they expect reciprocity from their friends - it's all about 'you do this for me and I'll do that for you' at this stage. Many kids this age also haven't yet developed the social skills to know how to handle more than one or two friends at the same time, so play dates tend to be easier if there is only one friend invited over. This is one reason why children at this age become very fond of secret clubs - it is an interesting (if a bit self-absorbed) way to reduce the number of friends they have to deal with at any given time.

It isn't a very nice experience for the children who are being excluded, but funnily enough, many kids are used to the ruthless straight-talking that is common in middle childhood, and it is often the parents who are more upset by the events than the kids. Having a best friend and being joined at their hip is another way to simplify the friendships in your life. Best friends suit many children at this age - especially girls who particularly enjoy connecting on an emotional level - because then the child can focus all their personality on one person, and pretty much disregard the rest of the world.

It is when children become tweens and teens that friendships often become more demanding, complex and, sadly, fraught with difficulties. There have been countless studies of cliques among children and, from the age of 11 years old and upwards, certain hierarchies have been identified in the typical classroom.

Approximately one-third of students tend to be in the dominant popular group. This group or clique is the most powerful group, and those who have a high need for power will often seek to be included in this group. This is the clique who may engage in a lot of strategic behaviour because of their desire to maintain or enhance their social status. About one-tenth of children are in the 'wannabe' group. These kids hang around the edges of the popular group, hoping desperately to get the nod so they can join the cool clique. They usually get enough crumbs of approval from the head table to keep them hooked, but they rarely gain full acceptance.

About half of students occupy the middle ground. This involves smaller, independent friendship groups, where the emphasis is on being loyal, kind and supportive of each other. These kids often dislike the popular kids, because they see them as unfriendly, political and standoffish, but they also look down on the less popular kids. About one-tenth of the students are socially isolated from every group. These children are most at risk of being targets of bullying, and these are the children that need more support from family so that they can emerge from their childhood with their sense of self intact.

Children are targeted for a wide variety of reasons - it isn't only difference, but the fact that they are easy prey that can put them on the bully's radar. Quiet and passive personalities are unlikely to stand up to the bully's mob, and so they can be targeted when the bullies feel the need for a quick shot of power.

Richard was an ordinary, quiet boy with a couple of good friends until one day, at the end of first year in school, there was some horseplay when he was getting changed after swimming, and his shorts came down in the midst of it all. From then on, Richard was called 'Little Dick' by his classmates, and his life was irrevocably transformed from that single event.

The whole thing took a life of its own. Looking back on it, Richard believes he should have immediately let loose, defended himself, told his parents, told the teachers and surrounded himself with support. But instead, quite understandably, he stayed silent, he kept his head down and desperately hoped that the slagging would die out.

It didn't.

The girls heard about Richard's new nickname, and soon it became the joke of the year among his schoolmates. Puerile, nasty and low it might have been - but bored teenagers looking for a cheap shot of power will do almost anything for a laugh. And so, if you have a quiet, passive child who is moving into a new environment, extra care needs to be taken so that your child has more support than usual. If your child has anything at all about them that could be considered 'unusual' by other teens or tweens - there is no one as freakishly conforming as a young teenager - then they will also need extra support.

We are willing to provide extra support for our children when they have dyslexia or ADHD, and so we should be ready to give extra help to the kids who find the relentlessly social aspect of adolescence difficult. This might mean the parent is tuned into their teenager's world, and is ready with another option, such as going to the movies, when the much coveted invitation to the Queen Bee's birthday party doesn't arrive.

It can also be helpful if the parents help their child to reignite old friendships - although, for more introverted kids, creating a space for your child and you to connect regularly can be more supportive than adding to their social calendar. Maybe go for a hot chocolate every Friday or something similar, so that there are regular opportunities to reflect on small worries as they arise. Then, when a problem crops up, the parents will already know the subtleties of the situation and can give some much-needed perspective on the issue.

Connection is the royal road to having a good relationship with your teenagers - teens don't tend to want to communicate with parents because, at this stage in their lives, friendships are often more important than anything else. However, if you can regularly connect with your teenager, they will be more likely to turn to you in times of crisis. It could be over a shared love of rom-coms or it could be your favourite soccer team; it really doesn't matter how you connect; what matters is the deeper feelings of belonging and connection.

This is the first generation of kids who have been raised with social media, and the impact of this has yet to be identified. However, you wouldn't need a master's in psychology to figure out that the relentless selfies, the stylised photos showing off perfect lives, and the obsession with counting your 'likes' is likely to lead to a generation that are more self-absorbed, narcissistic and, ironically, more disconnected than previous generations.

Just recently, five teenagers in Florida allegedly filmed a man drowning in a pond. They sniggered, they mocked and they watched him die. It is alleged that not one of them reported the incident, phoned the emergency services or tried to help in any way. Jamel Dunn's body was found at the bottom of the pond five days later.

These kids, sneering and jeering at a man who was dying, were so self-absorbed, so utterly disconnected from themselves and out of touch with their humanity that, if the circumstances were different, you would almost feel sorry for them.

As a psychotherapist, I am often quietly appalled by the bullying behaviour that is casually described by the teenagers I meet. The utter disdain that teenagers often have for the 'loners' and 'freaks' in their social domain is chilling. It's nearly always done 'just for the laugh', but it's seldom funny - it's usually degrading and cruel.

When I challenge these otherwise considerate and kind kids, they tend to look bemused, shrug their shoulders and mindlessly dismiss the pain of their peers. In my book, Bully-Proof Kids, I attempt to bring the bystanders in from the edges of the drama and place them slap-bang in the centre of it all. Bystanders are the people who see everything but do nothing. Millions of kids today are bystanders to cruel bullying, to controlling friendships and to power plays between stronger and weaker personalities. They let bullying happen. Yet, without a gallery to play to, bullying loses its fizz and, as the writer William Burroughs says: "There are no innocent bystanders... what are they doing there in the first place?"

The bystanders are the silent majority, and they hold the majority of the power. It is estimated that bystanders are present in 90pc of cases of bullying, and they can often stop the bullying within 10 seconds if they choose to intervene. The good news is that if we can create a culture of upstanders who are ready to stand in the path of bullies, then we will significantly reduce the impact, the frequency and the duration of bullying. The bad news is that bystanders, by their very nature, seldom wish to raise their head above the parapet.

This is why parents and schools need to join forces and help provide a culture of upstanding; parents need to stop demanding that the schools magic the bullying away, and the schools need to stop underplaying the bullying. I work as a psychotherapist in a private practice in rural Ireland and, of the three second-level schools in the area, one of the schools appears to handle bullying very effectively; another does reasonably well; while the third school encounters bullying on an almost continuous basis.

It is remarkable because these schools are similar, and the kids are from mostly comparable backgrounds. The difference is that the school with the bullying problem minimises any incidents of bullying or pretends that there is no bullying taking place at all, while the other two schools are, to a greater or lesser extent, willing to address the problem and take necessary steps to deal with it.

Teenagers these days all too often feel embattled, insecure and mentally all over the place. Like the person who has just lost their job and mindlessly steps over the homeless person on the street, teenagers today often feel so intensely anxious about their own position in the world, that they simply haven't got the brain space to have compassion or sympathy for others less fortunate.

Relentless schoolwork and performance assessments mean that teenagers are desperate for a laugh to break the tension; it allows them escape from their own troubles, and it gives them a feeling of power over the poor kid who's being ridiculed.

Not only that, but social media is a constant pressure in their lives. The kids are expected to hold it together in so many ways that, when their dark side comes out when they are 'having a laugh' together, it can come out warped, weird and cruel.

When Kara Kowalski from West Virginia in the US was crowned 'Queen of Charm' and picked to be a member of the cheerleading squad in her high school, it wasn't expected that she would soon after create a hate page on social media about another girl in the same school.

The hate page was called "S.A.S.H" which, it later emerged, stood for "Students Against Shay's Herpes". Shay was the name of a girl in Kara's school. The subheading on the page was: No, No Herpes, We Don't Want No Herpes. She invited about 100 people to join the page, about two dozen teenagers accepted Kara's invitation.

One classmate, Ray, posted a photo of himself with another boy holding their noses, with a sign that read: "Shay has herpes". Kara commented, "You are so funny." Ray added pictures of Shay; in one, he drew red dots on her face and added a sign in front of her pelvis reading: "Warning: enter at your own risk". Another picture was captioned: "Portrait of a whore".

We can try for a moment to imagine how Shay might have felt when she spoke to her family about this, but most of us simply can't make that leap: it is just too far from our own experience.

Shay's father called Ray to express his fury. Ray called Kara to ask her to take the page down. Kara tried to take the page down, but couldn't figure out how. The next morning, Shay and her parents visited the school principal and showed her the S.A.S.H page. Understandably, Shay skipped classes that day. The school's limp response to this odious behaviour is, in itself, distressing.

The principal suspended Kara for 10 days, but when Kara's parents protested, the suspension was cut in half. Kara was kicked off the cheerleading squad and stripped of the privilege of crowning the school's next 'Queen of Charm'. However, Kara's parents believed this was inappropriate and, in a shocking display of arrogant self-righteousness, sued the school, arguing that the suspension violated her right to free speech. When she lost her case, they appealed to the Supreme Court.

Thankfully, Kara's case was denied an appeal.

Unless schools put a good deal of effort into wiping out all signs of bullying, then certain teenagers are very likely to be targeted by malevolent bullies. Some schools are tolerant, encouraging and supportive, while other schools are exclusive, competitive and pushy. If parents choose to put their kids, for whatever reason, into a bullying environment, then it is up to the parents to ensure that they are ready to help them when trouble erupts.

It's not enough to blame the school or to blame the bullies. Sometimes, when trouble arrives, it is necessary for parents to stand shoulder to shoulder with their children. This might mean joining the parents' committee, creating awareness of bullying and bringing in anti-bullying workshops, or it might mean helping to build a circle of support for your child in school and outside school. Each situation is different, but the important thing is that the parents penetrate the child's isolation and show them solidarity.

With school beginning again, it is time for parents to assess whether their child might be a potential target, a potential bully or a potential bystander and, if they are, what you plan to do about it. If your child is at risk, now is the time to make sure that your child has a strong circle of support, understands the need for self-awareness and has some knowledge of social dynamics. But, perhaps most of all, your child needs to know that you've got their back, because, when it comes to bullying, it's united we stand, divided we fall.

Stella O'Malley's new book 'Bully-Proof Kids - Practical Tools To Help Your Child Grow Up Confident, Resilient And Strong' is published by Gill

What to do: If your child is being bullied

Try to find a circle of support for your child. Most parents say they'll take a bullet for their child; well, this is the time for parents to show what they're made of. Try to explore some interests that the child has, and be willing to bring them to places where they might find a new circle of friends who also enjoy these interests.

Resuscitate old friendships. The child might feel unlikeable and friendless, so it can be helpful if the parent gets in contact with some old friends or cousins who know the child well. This can be reassuring for the child as they will be reminded that there are other kids who like them and whose opinion of them hasn't been tainted by bullies' jeers. Even if they have moved on and they don't become great friends again, a visit to the movies and a bit of a laugh every so often can give the child some much-needed perspective.

Be mindful of the impact of social media but don't ban it. Almost every teenager I have counselled about bullying has said that they would prefer to know what is being said than not know. I couldn't imagine going into a classroom of 30 people knowing that most of them had read horrible comments about me online, and I didn't know what these comments were. I don't think it's fair to ask any teenager to go through that.

Help them develop their emotional intelligence and self-awareness. The more a child learns to recognise and manage both their own and other people's emotions, the easier it will be for them to intercept and redirect the bullies.

Teach them about social dynamics and build their insight. The child might feel completely at sea about why they've been singled out, but the more they understand about social dynamics, the less they will feel that there is something wrong with their personality.

Be kind. The child will feel really vulnerable and some thoughtfulness and gentle consideration can go a long way towards making them feel better about themselves. This might mean that you let them get the dog that they've always asked for, or that you allow them to paint their bedroom whatever colour they choose. Life can be very difficult sometimes, and when you're feeling sad and lonely, kindness can cut through the misery and warm the heart.

What to do: If your child is  accused of bullying 

Some kids, given a certain environment and certain circumstances, can fall into bullying. It usually happens when a person with a high need for power is applauded for their bullying behaviour by sidekicks and pleasers, who desperately seek approval from their powerful friend. The child then feels gratified by the laughs and the approval, and so continues to seek further cheap shots so they can feel more powerful. Thankfully, with some thought, consideration and effort, a potential bully can often be redirected to become a leader instead.  If you worry that your child might have some bullying tendencies, the following can help your child to transform themselves from a potential bully to a leader.

Encourage them to seek power in more fulfilling ways

Ultimately, your child is probably bullying because they enjoy the feelings of control and power. If the parent can find an activity that provides the child with similarly satisfying feelings of power, then that will often be enough to take the edge off the bullying. This might be a challenging activity such as horse riding or mountain-climbing, or it might be more cerebral such as debating or the Young Scientist competition. The idea is to challenge the child to achieve in an area that brings deeper levels of satisfaction.

Increase moral engagement

This is a key aspect to reducing bullying behaviour. If the bully is taught to look at the larger picture in life and see the impact of their behaviour, both for good and bad, then they will soon understand how their personality has an impact. Bullies tend to dismiss the impact of their behaviour - to dehumanise the target and minimise their own influence. It can be quite inspiring for bullies to watch movies about great leaders such as Malcolm X or Gandhi, and realise that they too can make a difference in the world.

Teach empathy

The bully needs to learn how to empathise with others. They need to be moved out of their self-absorption and learn how to walk in other people's shoes. This can be done through focused conversation from the parent. Penetrating questions such as "How exactly does someone become homeless?" or "What would it feel like to have developmental issues?" can move the bully from bland, dismissive comments to really engaging in the subject. The parent will need to have researched the subject too.

Develop problem-solving skills If the root of the problem is that the bully can't quite handle conflict, then it would be helpful if the parent taught their child some techniques, such as learning to analyse and evaluate a situation with a view to achieving a good result. If the child lashes out whenever a person annoys them, then it could be helpful if they learned how to more effectively manage their anger with some deep breathing or mindfulness techniques.

Model self-acceptance and other acceptance

Bullies are often intolerant of difference and have a hard time accepting their own or other people's flaws. The gift of self-acceptance can be one of the most profound gifts a parent can give their child. Once the child accepts themselves as the flawed but good enough, then they will then more easily accept others in the same vein. Positive affirmations such as "Don't be so hard on yourself and don't be so hard on others" can be repeated at every opportunity by the parent.

Build self-awareness

The more the parent can point out how every action causes a reaction, the more the bully can learn that their behaviour is either part of the problem or part of the solution. Parents can also help build their child's self-awareness by pointing out their patterns of behaviour - for example, the parent might remark how often they tend to become engaged in conflict with people who are considered clever, and then they might wonder aloud why that's the case. It can be helpful for the child if the parent can admit their own flaws so that the conversation is productive and relatable, rather than a critical analysis of the bully's personality.

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