In an admirably clear, jargon-free book psychotherapist Stella O’Malley argues that emotional intelligence – the ability to ‘read’ people – is one of the most useful skills children can acquire.
Emotionally intelligent children and adults keenly understand the situations they find themselves in and the people they are dealing with. They know instinctively that the fault lies with those who are bullying or harassing them.
They do not experience the guilt and self-loathing that can plague victims of bullies. They know what to say or do to avoid danger
O’Malley suggests that children can develop an ability to ‘size up’ others, to understand what drives them, from discussions with adults. Almost any subject that involves people and personality can be useful. Donald Trump invariably comes up in our conversations with older children and teenagers these days.
When he does we may yawn with boredom and dismiss him as a dangerous buffoon; or we can encourage children to try to get inside his head and consider challenging questions: what motivates him? What is his appeal?
Anything that stimulates the mind of a young person, that sets him thinking about where he stands in relation to others, develops emotional intelligence and empathy, as do socialising and group activities. Children who spend too much time online or in front of a screen may not fully develop an ability to ‘read’ others, and may be at risk of becoming the loners bullies tend to target.
O’Malley is strong on the personalities of bullies and their victims. Bullies tend to be outgoing, self-confident and socially adept. They are natural leaders. What they lack – and they have this in common with psychopaths – is an ability to empathise with others: they simply do not understand what they are putting their victims through.
Those victims tend to be unassertive, unassuming kids who do not belong to any of the groups within the class and may have no-one to stand up for them.
They may be ‘different’: several of the people who describe their experiences at the hands of bullies in the book are gay.
Young people are most likely to experience bullying in secondary schools, places where support is often not at hand. Schools invariably have sound anti-bullying policies, but many do not implement them. Anti-bullying strategies, talks, investigations – all of these put pressure on stressed teachers working within strained budgets.
O’Malley warns parents against relying on schools, making the good point that teachers are educators, not counsellors. She urges parents to take the initiative. If things don’t improve at the school they should consider sending their child somewhere else.
Young people are at most risk of being ‘cyberbullied’ at around the age of 15. One way to help them avoid or deal with it might be to formally incorporate classes on social media and technology into the curriculum.
Children understand how the various platforms work, but often don’t appreciate the power of social media, its potential for harm.
Many of them don’t know how to differentiate between social media pals and real-life pals; when it comes to social media adults often don’t know where to start.
If nothing else, everyone needs to know what to do when things go wrong, when they are the subjects of a malicious post, for example. O’Malley tells us that at least one in ten of the children beginning secondary school will be bullied.
Most victims will recover from the ordeal, and may even become stronger for it, but many won’t and will live lives diminished by depression, or dependence on drugs, like some of the unfortunates O’Malley has interviewed.