Beating the bullies

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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When our son came home from his first week at kindergarten and told us that there was a boy in his class who kept punching him and calling him the wrong name, I was concerned and suggested he speak to the boy and ask him not to do it anymore. When he came home again the following week and told me it was still happening and it was making him “sad,” my first instinct was to call the teacher. Who was this kid? What was his problem? And why hadn’t anyone noticed this was going on? I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to rush in and fix things, to protect my children from others who want to hurt them. In this instance I held back, and suggested that my son speak to the teacher the next time it happened. He did, and they resolved the issue together in the classroom.

But, bullying isn’t always that easy to deal with, and as children grow older it can become more and more difficult. Older children tend to internalise their feelings, and we parents often feel helpless, especially if our children don’t want to talk about what’s happening to them. Bullying and its psychological effects can have long-lasting ramifications and take many years to recover from, but building self-esteem, resilience and a child’s coping skills will help them avoid the negative impacts of bullying, whatever their age.

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What is bullying?

It’s important to understand firstly that there is a distinct difference between being a bully and simply being mean. Being labelled a bully can be just as detrimental for a child’s self-esteem as being the victim of teasing and tormenting, so make sure you establish the difference between the two with your children. Calling someone a nasty name, excluding them from play, or laughing at the clothes they’re wearing may not be very nice, but if they only occur once or twice, they’re not generally malicious enough to be considered bullying. An excellent resource for parents, the anti-bullying website StopBullying.gov, defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behaviour among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”

Everyone experiences bullies or bullying at some point in their lives. For me, it was at the age of nine, a time when girls can be particularly cruel. Another friend described the horrors of being relentlessly harassed as the only gay student in a small-town school. Some of us have known bosses, colleagues or neighbours as adults who could be considered bullies, and there are probably a few among us who were once upon a time not the victim, but the one responsible for another’s pain and suffering.

Whatever your story, your experience will help your children to understand that they are not alone and that as unpleasant as this behaviour is, it can be overcome.

Bullying is often a result of a complex social situation and is rarely about the victim, but rather more of a reflection on the bully and how they see themselves.

Fortunately, bullying seems to be less prevalent here in Hong Kong than in a number of other countries, but it does exist. Psychologist John Shanahan says, “When it does happen, it is generally more mild, or more verbal or psychological than physical.” Mindquest founder and counsellor Justine Campbell agrees: “It’s a different form of bullying here, very subtle. It usually doesn’t occur on playgrounds as you would see in places like the UK and Australia, but we’re more likely to see taunting on buses where victims can’t escape and where there’s very little adult supervision. The use of language and words and taking other children’s belongings is much more common in Hong Kong.”

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Understanding bullying

Children who target and taunt others are usually not happy and have a low self-image, often as a result of once having been bullied at home or at school themselves. They may be going through a difficulty such as a divorce at home, a transition or a bereavement, and lack the skills to cope with it so they lash out at others.
Sometimes, however, children who resort to bullying behaviour may have very high self-esteem and a superiority complex. Psychologist Lora Lee says that these children “find it difficult to conform to rules. They want power over others and use violence to gain control.” She suggests, “If you notice that your child tends to lack empathy and finds it difficult to see things from someone else’s perspective, these may be signs that your child has the potential to become a bully. Pay attention to how your child interacts with younger or more vulnerable children, and then let them know what is acceptable and spell out the consequences of bullying.”

Bullies need support too, not just to help them deal with their underlying issues, but also to break the behaviour cycle. Parents are often quick to jump to the aid of the child being bullied, but not so fast when it comes to stepping in if their child is the perpetrator. Do you notice your children behaving differently in the playground, with the helper, or on the bus? If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour towards others, or if you have complaints from the school, don’t be shocked that your child is capable of bullying behaviour, and don’t let your feelings of shame and guilt stop you from responding. Kids need help navigating different social structures, and guidance on acceptable behaviour in different settings.

Dean, a father of two, expressed frustration over a recent situation in the playground: “A child from school was verbally abusing my son, and then began to get physical, repeatedly ramming his bike into Sam’s leg. His mother laughed it off with a ‘boys will be boys’ comment, but I wish she had taken him aside and explained that his behaviour was not acceptable. Without guidance from his parents, that child will not change.”

Children who bully others are not necessarily bad kids, but they do need to learn that there are consequences to their actions – both from a disciplinary point of view and the impact it has on their victims.

Is your child being bullied?

As children grow, they lose some of their willingness to share every detail of their lives with their parents. Teens, in particular, can be very tight-lipped, and when bullying is involved, many feel too ashamed to discuss it with anyone. Most children probably won’t come out and tell you that they’re being bullied, but there are signs that you can look out for if you suspect all is not right. You know your child best, and you will notice if there are any changes in their behaviour. Any behaviour that is outside of the norm should be investigated.

The emotional and behavioural effects of bullying are often the most noticeable. Tamara’s son Henry was bullied at school for months and she noticed him becoming increasingly depressed and withdrawn. She says, “He stopped wanting to go to school, and then he lost interest in football and all the other after-school stuff he had once really enjoyed. Our outgoing 12-year-old was suddenly very moody and had no patience for his younger sister.” Some children, like Henry, may be more temperamental at home because they are suppressing their emotions during the day at school. They may be more aggressive with younger siblings, pets and other family members.

Jayne’s eight-year-old daughter Holly began wetting the bed again when a group of girls at school started taking her lunchbox every day and leaving nasty notes in it. Jayne says that initially “she was just having bad dreams, then the bed-wetting started and eventually she didn’t want to get up in the morning. I noticed that she had stopped mentioning a couple of girls who had once been her best friends, and didn’t think much of it at first, but then any time I asked about those girls she got teary and quite upset. I knew then that something was very wrong.”

In younger children – who are often a bit clumsy – bumps, bruises and scratches are perfectly normal. But once your child has grown out of that stage, physical signs of bullying are more obvious. Some children who are being bullied may complain more frequently of headaches or stomach aches to get out of going to school. In some cases, they may genuinely feel ill if they are distressed. Older children in particular are prone to self-harm, which needs to be addressed immediately.

Above all, the best way to find out if your child is being bullied is to talk to them. Get into the habit of talking to your child after school from an early age. Make it part of their day and they will be more likely to feel comfortable talking to you when they are having problems. Ask open-ended questions, such as, “What did you talk about with your friends at lunch?” or “What was your favourite/least favourite part of the day?” which help avoid one-word answers like “fine”.

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How can you help?

The single most important thing you can do to help your kids deal with bullying is to be there for them, and you can begin by empathising with them. John Shanahan says, “If your child is brave enough to tell you that they are being bullied, it is important to validate their feelings. Reassure them that it is not their fault, that no one deserves to get bullied, and that they are being brave for talking about it. Older children often experience embarrassment, especially if they think you may involve their teacher.” While it can be tempting to rush in and fix it, or to deal with the bullies yourself, let your child know that you are on their side and that you will work through it together.

Bullies who have low self-esteem don’t typically pick on kids their own size. Intimidating younger, weaker or smaller children gives them the feeling of control and power that they crave. It can be hard to impress upon the victims of bullying that it isn’t necessarily about them, but there are ways that they can change their own behaviour that will help them to beat the bullies.
Children with low self-esteem are often picked on, as their lack of self-confidence makes them vulnerable and open to attack. These are the kids who often say things like, “No one likes me,” “I’m so stupid,” and the heart-breaking, “I wish I hadn’t been born.”

According to developmental psychologist Lora Lee, “The best thing parents can do is to build a child’s social and emotional resilience. If a child is being bullied, you need to re-program the child’s negative and powerless attitude about themselves to empower the child to no longer act like a victim.”

Help them practise confidence: Teaching your child to act and look assertive by standing up tall, with their shoulders back, head up, and making eye contact can have a big impact. Encourage them to use “I” statements: “I need you to stop picking on me. I do not like it.” They need to understand that they have a right to stand up for themselves and that they need never put up with bullying.

Justine Campbell suggests that children need to learn how to use their voices, how to speak up and not be afraid of doing so. You can teach them to be assertive in non-threatening situations, either in real life or through role-play, so that when they are threatened they have the confidence to handle it. Justine uses the example of being in a restaurant and getting a chocolate milkshake instead of the vanilla one your child ordered. Moments like these can be the perfect teaching opportunity if you model for your child how to politely correct the mistake that was made.

Children need to know who they can rely on for support. Remind them that there will always be parents or other adults who can protect them and take action on their behalf. As well as encouraging them to have a trusted adult who they can approach at any time, teach them to stay close to their friends – bullies will often target those children who are on their own.

Giving children a range of non-violent, age-appropriate strategies to deal with bullying can also be empowering. Simon’s Hook by Karen Gedig Burnett is an excellent book that compares teasing to fishing. Bullying victims have a number of choices to make when they are being teased: they can ignore it, they can distract the bully or they can make a joke of it, but the point of “not taking the bait,” is not giving in to the bully by giving them the reaction that they seek. When children understand that bullying is not a reflection on who they are, they can then regulate and control their response to put-downs and bullying.

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Enlist help

Most schools in Hong Kong have an anti-bullying policy, and when they are aware of a problem they handle it very well. The majority of schools also teach children about bullying, how to handle it, how to report it, and how to help the bully and the bullied. So, bringing the school’s or teacher’s attention to any incidences of bullying is a good idea. Ensuring that teachers are aware of trouble and involving them is essential to stamping out bullying that occurs at school, but John Shanahan advises that it is “best to have your child’s permission first. Children are usually happier to do this after they have tried to handle the situation themselves.” Reminding your child that you would seek help from another adult such as a friend or the police if you were the victim of bullying can often reassure them that they don’t need to do this on their own.

Bullying can have horrendous consequences if it is not identified and dealt with sensitively and swiftly. In some cases, children may benefit from seeing a counsellor or psychologist to help them process the bullying, and to develop their resilience and bullying prevention strategies. You can be one of the greatest assets in your children’s fight to beat the bullies – the strategies you teach them will equip them for the schoolyard and beyond.

Names have been changed for privacy.

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