The story of Quaden Bayles, the Queensland nine-year-old who was bulled for dwarfism, has touched hearts worldwide in recent days. It has raised the issue of bullying in school, which worries most parents and is a problem for a surprisingly high proportion of children during their school years.
Bullying is harmful behaviour that can leave a long-term impact. It is the repeated use of aggression to dominate, intimidate or terrify, and can be verbal, physical, social or online.
It can take place on the playground, subtly in classrooms, or before and after school.
Many children from our own community have to deal with the taunts of a dark and/or hairy skin, smelly food or BO. In essence though, all kids during adolescence face bodily changes as they mature into young adulthood. These changes can be confusing as there is a search for identity, and peer relationships can change, become strained or even fracture.
In times of change, psychological and physical, adolescents are vulnerable. Children who go through physical maturation earlier than their age peers may be taunted for showing adult features – such as a boy’s hairy face or a girl’s breast development. This can be extremely disconcerting for the young adult who may feel self-conscious, ashamed, isolated and uncertain about themselves and their changing body.
The physical changes are met with identity questions such as what it means to be a young woman or man or what is the nature of my gender. These questions come in a period of psychological flux in the sense that the adolescent does not feel settled or supported. At such time comments about a young woman’s facial hair or a young man’s lack of facial hair can be particularly confronting.
Bullying can occur in a range of settings, targeting extrinsic factors like school name and uniform, to cultural group or religious beliefs; how a person gets to school, what their parent’s occupation is, and more directly personal aspects such as physical changes, features and normal body adaptations.
Given this, what can parents do to help their child transition through school and adolescence without being brought down by bullies?
- Firstly, parents must learn to understand the feeling associated with being bullied. Telling a child to be strong or fight back does NOT tell a child that they are known or understood. Victims of bullying need to know that their fear and anxiety is real. They need to have understood that they will feel trepidation going to school as bullying makes children feel uncertain and lacking in trust. After all, if schools were safe spaces, how could bullying occur in and around them?
- Once it is clear that a parent can identify and name feelings without judgement, then children will know that they are understood. Understanding a child’s feeling normalises and validates the experience and will help them not to blame themselves.
- Secondly, a parent needs to reassure their child that the child is not alone and that the parent will help them through and make sure they are safe and protected. This should be articulated and not assumed. Parents should show leadership in this sense.
- In terms of schools, often parents and more particularly children are reluctant to approach schools due to the fear of being labelled a ‘dobber’ or a troublemaker. It takes courage to call out bullies and even greater courage to follow processes that trust an authority (the school). The feeling about the school may be ambivalent. There have been some well publicised instances when schools have failed in their duty of care to properly support victims of bullying.
- Parents should ensure they know the School Anti-Bullying Policy and that any approach to the school includes a written record including minutes of meeting and follow up by email or letter confirming what happened in any meetings. This is essential so that the child and the parents can be sure of what support is being given and are clear about the processes and steps undertaken to resolve bullying issues.
- Counselling children, enrolling them in self-defence classes, spending more time with them, watching for any changes in behaviour are all forms of support that can assist a child to feel safe when bullies have struck.
Parents should be alert but calm, assuring and supporting, strong enough to take actions through appropriate channels – calling it out for what it is – and be more present and focused. These are the keys to supporting children and overcoming bullying.