As parents, one of the hardest and most distressing things we are faced with is bullying. It touches all of us at some point. We know from the Australian Child Health Poll that Australians think that bullying is one of the big problems facing children and young people today, so what is the best way to tackle it?
Bullying is defined as“an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm.”It can occur in person or online and can have long-term, and sometimes considerable, consequences for our children. Most schools have a bullying policy and if your child tells you that they’re being bullied, the first step is to speak with their class teacher or year level coordinator. If a teacher observes an incident it is expected that they will speak directly to the student(s) involved and provide clear direction about what is considered acceptable behaviour. A further incident should trigger involvement of the parents and potentially counselling for both children – the victim and the bully. Further incidents may result in behavioural consequences, such as detention or mediation, or even suspension and/or expulsion.
There is much greater awareness in schools now about the need for students and the whole school community to create respectful relationships and to focus on student wellbeing. I am so delighted when my kids tell me that they’ve done “mindfulness” at school; I don’t recall this being taught in my time at school? All children have the right to be in an environment free from harassment or fear, to feel safe and comfortable at school, and to be treated with understanding and respect by others. There needs to be a strong commitment made by the school, students, staff and parents to uphold these values and to ensure that this is what our kids’ experience.
What can we do as parents to more effectively deal with and prevent bullying?
1. Firstly, we can try to build resilience in our kids
If your child is being bullied, you need to take the steps outlined above. The school needs to be notified to act and you need to help your child to speak to a trusted adult and to get the support they need. But, it may also be important to help them understand their role in what is happening, if that is relevant. Can we help them to build their social skills and their self-esteem so that they are more confident in responding to bullies and hopefully reducing the likelihood of being a target for them as well? This is not about blaming them, but about building them up. Maybe we need to help them to seek out new friends or develop some new interests? This is not easy or may not be possible, especially if the bullying is based on race, religion or a physical disability. We know that being different or standing out in any way increases a child’s risk of being bullied, so specific strategies may be needed as well. When their child is being bullied, many parents wonder if they should move schools. Although sometimes this may be the best solution, some kids may find that the problem reoccurs in the new setting. As a first step it may be better to work with them and the school to understand the issue, to find solutions and deal with the bullies and to start to build the bullied child’s resilience
2. Secondly, we can make sure we are not raising a bully!
Just as we need to be attuned to when things are not going well, we should also be aware if our children are picking on other kids or excluding them. One of the key reasons children bully others is to enhance their social status or they may be trying to be “cool” or improve their popularity without being fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Their behaviour may be subtle with no overt name-calling, just pure rejection of another kid based on difference. Many parents hover over or “helicopter” over most aspects of their kids’ lives including their school-work, activities, sleep and nutrition, but when it comes to their social lives they stand back. Why? It may be easier to identify with if they were picked on or bullied as kids, but it is also our job as parents to recognise this behaviour in our children and intervene if needed.
We need to have the fortitude to pick them up on this behaviour and to teach them to accept and tolerate difference and to be kind. It’s not enough to just “be nice” – we all know there are subtle ways to be unkind. They don’t have to necessarily become best friends with the kid they find annoying (although I’m sure if they gave them half a chance they would realise that they have more in common with them than they thought!). But, actively seeking out and teasing or mocking other kids is not OK and we need to be very clear about that. We also need to encourage our kids to be an upstander NOT a bystander, and to have the courage to intervene on behalf of the victim. One parent described it as their “ATM Machine Analogy” – some kids have social bank to spare and these kids should be encouraged to make a withdrawal on behalf of less fortunate kids, without them needing to risk too much. They can be taught to invest in and stick up for others!
I have been on both sides of the fence with this issue with my own kids and both situations are hard. I am not trying to simplify the issue or issue blame, but I do believe that if we as parents and teachers are going to tackle the “bullying culture” we need to speak to our kids about tolerance, difference and kindness AND try to build their resilience and strength. We need to teach them early in life to be less quick in their assessments and dismissals of others and to develop strong social skills that they will use for the rest of their life.