Thursday 18 July 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Adults and educators are helpless against bullying'

We ask a lot of teachers when it comes to bullying, which thrives while we struggle to defeat it, writes Sarah Caden

‘Bullying often isn’t done by the arch-enemies of a child, but by their friends’. Stock Image
‘Bullying often isn’t done by the arch-enemies of a child, but by their friends’. Stock Image

Sarah Caden

Dan Olweus is a Norwegian psychology professor and pioneer in research into bullying and the bully/victim relationship.

In 2011, he wrote: "Bullying is not about just any kind of injury, nor just any negative impact. It involves a particular kind of harm. It is aimed at engendering a kind of helplessness, an inability to act, to do anything. Bullying involves the attempt to deny another any settled place, even a subordinate one. It goes beyond subjection. In bullying, the goal is abjection."

The dictionary definition of abjection is the state of being cast off. The state of being cast off, it could be said, goes beyond isolation. It also includes helplessness, an inability to cast on again, an inability to rescue oneself.

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And when applied to bullying, particularly of children, this helpless state of being cast off does not only affect them. It affects us, as parents, and it hugely affects their other primary advocates, the teachers and principals at school.

We turn to the schools, teachers and principals for the answers in cases of bullying, because so much of it happens on their turf. It's in the yard, the school toilets, even the classroom and they are the professionals, with the procedures and the guidelines and, we hope, the answers.

So often, however, a parent will say the school did next to nothing when they went to them with a child distressed by how they were being treated by their peers at school.

The school might say they did everything by the book, following the fundamentally clear and common sense Anti-Bullying Procedures For Primary and Post-Primary Schools, published by the Department of Education and Skills (DES) under Ruairi Quinn in 2013, but parents can still often come away dissatisfied.

Guidelines say mending relationships between the bully and victim is the primary goal, rather than applying labels and apportioning blame.

Parents, particularly of the child being bullied, will say they often feel no adequate punishment was meted out, and that their child was forced to take some sort of equal responsibility to the alleged bully. And, a lot of the time, there is a feeling that while guidelines and intentions are good, in the real world, little is altered by those facts.

Often, the bullying pattern persists, with everyone involved cast off and helpless in the face of it. One issue arises repeatedly when talking to parents and teaching professionals. This is that bullying often isn't perpetrated by the arch-enemies of a child, but by their friend or friends. Groups of pals start picking on one of their pack by being nasty about their clothes or appearance, they whisper while in their company, they don't include them, don't include them in arrangements, they enjoy in-jokes they won't share.

And these are their friends.

As a parent, you know of situations like these. You know they are so difficult to solve because the children, often as the bullying behaviour persists, continue to hang around with the people their parents have identified to the school as the bullies. They want to be friends.

That is often the desire of the bullied, and it is the power on which the bully feeds. It is also often what makes it so hard to fix.

Children and teenagers want to belong so badly, they're like a moth to a flame when it comes to these relationships. This leaves parents and teachers with their hands tied, at a loss as to how to break the destructive cycle.

One parent told me last week about their child, who had circumstances that set them apart from their peers - but how at the same time she wasn't keen on making trouble for tormentors she considered her pals. And they, as we all know, could get worse if she told on them.

No one wants to be the bullied child. Kids still hate to be a tell-tale. They hate to be singled out. They hate the adults involved.

"I'm fine is the biggest lie," a child was reported to have said during the Ombudsman for Children's 2012 study of the culture of bullying in Irish schools. Which is to say children need us to take charge, because their default is to minimise any distress they are experiencing as result of bullying.

Children, and it only gets worse as they turn into teenagers, don't want adults interfering in their relationships. That's natural, but what we see with the rise in bullying here, is that they still need us.

Increasingly, however, children exist in a realm over which we have less and less control. In the world of social media and the internet, our children's private lives are far more wide-ranging and vulnerable to bullying than for any previous generation.

The 2013 anti-bullying procedures that must be followed by all primary and post-primary schools deal with cyberbullying - a problem that was not of concern in 1993.

And the 2013 guidelines are clear enough when it comes to cyberbullying. Interestingly, the advice distinguishes between public and private online forums where hurtful, insulting behaviour can occur, with the former requiring more formal handling than the latter.

Six years on, we all know all manner of bullying is rampant in both domains and is where some of the worst hurt occurs. It's hard to know how schools can be expected to handle the out-of-hours online tormenting, isolating and abusing that goes on, as it leaks into the daytime interactions. They cannot police what happens out of hours. They must also despair at how parents might allow their children free access to the internet and social media, and then come to the teachers for answers when it goes wrong.

We also know that adults bullying each other online is something no one seems able to control. Only last week, Vogue Williams pleaded with her online followers to desist in their comments about her weight. The abuse she receives for her physical appearance, the healthy care of which forms a huge part of her career, has become so predominant that she felt the need publicly to ask people to stop.

And these aren't kids. We expect the kids to have some cop on, but we are setting them a terrible example.

Schools must be at a loss to cope with the damage being done online, which then comes to their doors. I have heard stories of children in high distress about conversations they hear are happening about them online, picked up in whispers as they are deprived of a phone of their own. I've heard of confessional conversations between under-10s that go too far and lead to exposure of intimate secrets in class.

I've heard of splinter WhatsApp groups among pre-teens, leading everyone to wonder who's talking about them and who they can trust.

The 2013 school guidelines make it clear that the nebulous nature of online chat, which can be hard to prove, is especially insidious. But six years ago, we were in the ha'penny place. Six years ago, smartphones weren't the de rigueur first communion gift.

One of the best results of the DES guidelines on bullying has been the whole-school approach it has encouraged and nurtured. Bullying is now something children learn about and talk about from their earliest days of primary school. They do age-appropriate programmes that include role play and give them an understanding not only of being the victim, but also the bully or the bystander who doesn't know what to do or want to get involved.

And there may not be one of us who has not been the last party, at some point in our lives. Because bullying breeds that feeling of helplessness, it encourages it.

One of the "Key Principles of Best Practice" in the 2013 DES procedures paper was that "the misconception that bullying is a normal phase of development and that it teaches pupils to toughen up needs to be challenged".

That they needed to state this, a mere six years ago, says a lot. It says that while we might wish we could ignore what's going on, or believe there's a simple answer, there is not. And bullying grows where we doubt ourselves.

The difficulty of articulating it, of proving it, of naming it all makes it easier for us to do nothing and hope that it will go away. In doing that, though, we diminish its long-term damage, for everyone it puts in an abject state.

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