How to respond to bullying

Question of the day:

My child is being bullied at school.  How should I handle it?

Too often do we hear people say things like: “It’s a normal part of growing up”, “We all went through that”, and “It will teach him how to be a man”.  There is nothing normal about bullying, and just because parents and teachers did not understand the devastating nature of this behaviour in our school days, does not mean that children today should continue to be exposed to violence and abuse.

Thanks to the recording of many instances of bullying and posting  on social media, the public is becoming increasingly aware and alarmed by the prevalence and shocking nature of bullying that takes place, especially in schools.  There are many well-known instances where bullying has lead to the death of the victim, either directly or by suicide.

Most children will not tell someone if they are being bullied.  We have created a society and value system where people not only feel guilty about being a victim of violence, but are often blamed for being a victim.  If you wonder how this could be true, listen to the TED Talk by Jackson Katz.  He talks about violence against women being a men’s issue, but his argument is equally relevant to any kind of victimisation.  Click here for the link.

Children may feel that they want to deal with the problem themselves, or may be afraid of being labeled a “tattletale” if they tell a teacher or parent.  Bullying is a humiliating experience and children may feel like no-one will understand or even believe them.  Telling can also be dangerous and result in a backlash from the bully.  Forget about offering advice about “standing up” to a bully; when adults are bullied (adults call it assault) they access protection through legal and law enforcement means.  Imagine telling an adult who is assaulted or harrassed on a regular basis to just “stand up” to the bully…

How to know when your child is being bullied:

  1. A child may have frequent and unexplained injuries;
  2. Frequent aches and pains in an attempt to avoid going to school;
  3. Difficulty sleeping or having nightmares;
  4. Changes in eating patterns, e.g. coming home from school without having had lunch;
  5. Decline in performance at school;
  6. Loss of friends or avoidance of social situations;
  7. Self-destructive behaviours such as running away from home or self-harm;
  8. Depression and thoughts of suicide.

What do do if your child is being bullied:

There are many ways that you can intervene to protect your child from further victimisation, and this is by no means an exhaustive list.  It is important to consider the unique circumstances of every situation and make decisions that are in the best interest for the children concerned.  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Start by understanding the nature of bullying.  Know that children are not being bullied because of anything they did or did not do.  Children are bullied simply because another child has picked him or her to be the subject of ridicule and to be an outlet for their aggression.  It is a form of violence and victimisation against which every person has the right to be protected.
  2. Listen to your child.  Don’t be too quick to dispense advice.  Talking about being a victim of violence may be as difficult for a child being bullied as for an adult who is a victim of violence crime.
  3. Ask questions such as: Who is the bully? When does this happen? How often does it happen? Who else knows about this? Have to reported it to a teacher or anyone else?  Understand the specific details of what is happening.  Listen for the facts, but also for the feelings.  More than anything it is important that your child feels understood and supported.
  4. Take responsibility to address the situation.  You are the parent.   This is not the kind of thing that you leave for your child to “solve”.  Adults have access to various systems for their protection.  Children have access to the parents.
  5. If your child is confident and comfortable in addressing this themselves and you are satisfied as a parent that it is safe to do so (e.g.. in very minor instances), you can encourage them to address it in a non-violent manner.  It is important that you monitor the situation.
  6. Make an appointment to see the school principal (if this is school related).  Stick to the facts and ask the principal to help you address the situation.
  7. Together with the principal, if possible arrange a meeting with the bully’s parents.  The purpose of such a meeting would be to bring the matter under their attention and engage their cooperation in addressing the issue.  These meetings can become very emotional, so try and stick to the facts.
  8. Arrange a meeting with the bully and his or her parents, together with your child.  Ask the principal or another objective person to mediate – preferably someone who is knowledgeable of restorative justice processes.  The purpose of such a meeting would be for the bully to take responsibility for his or her behaviour and commit to steps to repair the harm done.  For some information about restorative justice, click here.
  9. Monitor the situation – do not assume that it is resolved.  If it is not resolved, take further steps.
  10. If the situation is not resolved, take the matter to the school Board or the Department of Education.  If the school principal is reluctant to address the matter, take the next step and refer the matter to a higher authority.
  11. Consult an attorney.  Sometimes legal advice is necessary and can help you understand you and your child’s rights.  At worst, you will have obtained an expert opinion, and information is always useful.
  12. Lay a formal complaint with the SAPS.  Although this is a radical step, remember that the bully has had the opportunity to correct his or her behaviour and continues to victimise your child.  While the behaviour may be commonly referred to as “bullying”, should this happen to an adult we would be talking about “assault”, “victimisation”, “harrassment”, “intimidation” and such.  The police may be reluctant to open a case and pressure you to address this through some other channel, but it is your child’s right not to be victimised.
  13. Remove your child from the school.  This should be a last step to consider.  This is not fair – it is the bully who should be removed.  However, if there is no way to protect your child from further victimisation and all other avenues have been exhausted, this may be a reasonable action to protect your child.

How to know when your child is bullying others

  1. Getting into physical or verbal fights
  2. Have friends that bully others
  3. Frequently get detention or sent to the principal’s office
  4. Displays increasing aggression
  5. Have unexplained money or new belongings
  6. Blame others for their problems and don’t take responsibility for their actions

What to do if your child is bullying others

Children who bully are still children and need help.  They are more likely to get in trouble as adults and are more likely to:

  • Abuse alcohol and drugs, as adolescents and as adults
  • Get into fights and drop out of school
  • Engage in early sexual activity
  • Have criminal convictions
  • Be abusive towards their spouses or children as adults

If you know that your child is victimising others, it is important to seek professional help and counselling.  Bullying behaviour is often a sign of more complex problems and it is important to address those.

STOP the bullying

Protecting children from harm is the responsibility of all adults.  The harm caused by bullying that remains unaddressed is pervasive and long-term.