Every day children in schools all around the world eat their lunch in toilet cubicles; others spend entire mornings in class silently agonising about who might hang out with them at lunchtime; millions 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.
Although girls are more likely to use social bullying as a way to wield power over another while boys tend to use physical violence more often, it doesn’t really matter whether the bullying is physical, social, emotional or cyber-bullying, it reaches deep into a person’s psyche and shatters their sense of self.
The good news is that bullying can be combated. The bad news is that not enough people are educated about how to do this.
All too often teenagers are advised to handle bullying as a mature adult would in the corporate world; by asking the mean kid to meet them in private and to explain that the comments hurt their feelings and that they want it to stop. More often than not the bullies would laugh in the target’s face and relentlessly ridicule them to the rest of the group.
Other common advice is to ‘just ignore them’. However, in mean kid world, just ignoring the bullies can be incendiary to them and so the bullies push and push in a bid to get a reaction. Of course, when they finally do get a reaction it is generally an emotional outburst and so this is also very dangerous advice.
Parents can also often misread the complexity of the bullying and tell their kids to answer back with one-liners such as “you’re so immature”. But the bullies are often a complex and sophisticated hierarchy of ringleaders, queen bees, sidekicks, wannabes and messengers who are fighting to maintain their status within the group and they will not allow the target to get the upper hand so easily. Mean kids tend to see through a false show of confidence and they will immediately reassert their strength so as to punish the target for daring to rise above their station.
Targets are often unused to asserting themselves sufficiently and the bullies intuitively realise this and take advantage of the target’s nerves.
If your child has already tried to follow your (or someone else’s) advice and found that it hasn’t worked then the child can become cynical and secretive. The child often then believes that they can’t go to their parents for advice because their parents will guide their children towards further humiliation and scorn. Feelings of isolation ensue as they can’t confide in their parents any more, for fear of further exacerbating the problem.
When parents are confronted with our children’s difficulties, our noble and natural reaction is to do everything in our power to annihilate the difficulty and yet, as the child moves from middle childhood to being a teenager, removing the difficulty is often an inappropriate response. More often connection has more value than solutions – the writer and motivational speaker Brené Brown highlighted this when she said, “Rarely can a response make something better; what makes something better is a connection”.
And so parents are better off ensuring that first and foremost they remember to take the time to authentically connect on a deeper level whenever their teens or tweens come to them with a problem.
The days of making everything better are, sadly, over once a child leaves middle childhood and, with this, a new dawn is breaking where deeper relationships matter more than simple solutions.
The process whereby parents can lead their children to better relationships – with everyone – needs to be examined closely, with a critical eye, as parents and children consider what will work and what might fail in their individual situations. Blind devotion to any solution isn’t appropriate – instead everyone needs to dig deep and determine how best their loved ones can beat the bullies.
When a teenager is in class a whole range of different social and emotional problems are erupting at the same time: “Will I put my hand up and answer this question? God, everyone will notice me. What if I’m wrong and I look stupid? If I answer right I’ll probably just look like a swot, it’s probably better to do nothing.”
Think about your child and realise that for about seven hours, five days a week they are trying to juggle their actions according to the judgement of perhaps 30 of their peers. Their emotions are in overdrive as they try to figure out what is appropriate and what is not. This is all going on in a nice, easy, boring class under the control of the teacher, so we can multiply these worries by a thousand when it comes to lunch hour.
In an ideal world, parents shouldn’t be required to step in and fight the child’s fights, or at least should stay out of the situation until the children ask for help. Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world, and often parents feel forced to send their children to schools that have a bullying culture and so parents should be ready to step in to help if the child is clearly not coping on their own.
The help that parents provide should mostly centre on providing considered advice, emotional support and physical protection to their own child without needing to directly fight the perpetrator.
This doesn’t mean that a gentle and passive child should be required to change in any way – more that targets of bullying need to accept who they are and develop the aspects of their personality that can save them from being bullied. For example, maybe the child is a good and loyal friend, or maybe they are funny so they can make people laugh at an opportune moment, or maybe they are sensitive and so can spot a troubling situation before others can.
Parents might also remind their children just how ineffective strategies such as hiding from the bully are as they didn’t work previously and probably won’t work in the future.
When parents do decide to step in and take action, this is a crucial moment in the arc of the bullying experience. The intervention needs to be effective, because if it fails, the child will feel all security fading away. And so the parent will need to gather up their strength and dig deep for this.
It is important for everyone – parents and children – to learn from each experience and keep in mind each success and failure. In the future, parents can then remind their child how they faced down the bully in the schoolyard by using their wit, by using distraction, by spotting the potential upstander or by assertively and continuously requesting help and support.
Parents also need to admit when their advice and support did not work. Parents need to realise that sometimes their advice isn’t appropriate for the child and so the family might need to regroup and take stock.
As our children move from babies to toddlers through middle childhood and the teen years, so we parents move from being physical caretakers of our children to providing a role of mentoring and guidance. And so, although we can help, support, guide and encourage our children, by the time our children have become teenagers it is often neither appropriate nor helpful for the parent to try to solve the teenager’s problems.
The teenager needs to learn how to handle bullies. If the parent steps in and mows everyone down then there will inevitably be further bullying incidents in the future. Although it is appropriate for children under the age of 12 to assume the adults will sort it all out, on some level, teenagers will need to refrain from automatically assuming that the nearest adult will rescue them – when a child enters the teen years they should be starting to learn how to handle themselves.
Teenagers need to learn how to think for themselves so that one day if they are involved in a complicated peer group situation, they can figure out the best route to take. No matter how much we wrap our kids in cotton wool, at some point, whether it is when they are 14 or 18 years old, they will probably be offered some drugs, or offered a lift from a drunk but cool friend, or engaged inappropriately online – and your teenager will have to make a decision on their own. If teenagers are to learn how to handle themselves, they will need to have some practice in learning to rely on themselves.
The parent can come up with helpful ideas and different options but the teenager will probably need to be the one who has to try them out. The parents can open the door but the teenager must walk through.
Preparing your children for possible future events that are bound to happen enables them to be prepared for the curveballs that life often throws us.
If the parent can impart the idea that problems can cause difficulties but they are rarely insurmountable, then the parent has set the tone for the children to feel capable and able for the challenges they will face in life. Unless you think your child is in actual danger, sometimes you need to trust that your child can handle the situation and the best you can offer them is to hope for the best, prepare for the worst and cheer them on from the sidelines.
*Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and public speaker with over 10 years’ experience as a mental health professional. Much of Stella’s counselling and teaching work is with parents and young people. She is the author of Bully-Proof Kids published by Gill Books, €14.99.