Shivaun Pereira, Educational and Developmental Psychologist
Bullying and cyberbullying are serious problems for school aged children. Dealing with school bullying takes a comprehensive, whole school approach where a school works to develop a culture that does not stand for harassment, all students are aware of acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour and there are good programs available for supporting social skill development for both bully and victim.
As adults, we need to send the message that bullying is never the fault of the victim. Rather is it a choice made by another to hurt or harm. The research has found some common characteristics of children who are victimised which include being overly sensitive, not standing up for themselves and responding in a passive way. However, this does not mean that the victim is in anyway responsible for being treated poorly.
If you are a parent of a child who is the victim of bullying, it is not uncommon to feel helpless. You can speak with the school and even consult with the bully's parent. At the end of the day, however, your child has to deal with their peers independently which can be very distressing. Sometimes parents may even feel like taking things into their own hands by confronting the bully; this should be avoided as it can sometimes cause even more trouble for their child.
When I meet with kids who are victims of bullying I find that most of them benefit from support with assertiveness. Assertiveness is about finding the middle ground between reacting passively and aggressively. I think of being assertive as standing up for yourself in a friendly way. This is a skill which can be taught, encouraged, practised and modelled for all children and can be used as a constructive way to respond to bullying.
I use Sam the turtle, Andy the shark and Kyle the dolphin to introduce assertiveness to kids.
Submissive Sam is very shy and quiet. When confronted with a bully he cries, shakes and retreats into his shell. Submissive Sam speaks in a quiet, shaky voice. He never stands up for himself or says what he is thinking, and he gives in to bullies. He’s scared of what will happen if he does speak up – he worries that it will make things worse. Other kids know that it’s easy to walk all over Submissive Sam and he gets taken advantage of.
Aggro Andy is loud, angry and snappy. He is quick to fight and often gets in trouble by the teachers. When someone hurts him he hurts them back. Aggro Andy uses a mean and threatening tone of voice. His body language is overpowering and peers can see when he is getting mad. He is also an easy target because his reactions are predictable. Peers see Aggro Andy as a scary kid who can’t control himself. Or alternatively, they enjoy taunting Andy and watching his reactions.
Cool Kyle is a confident kid. When he meets a bully he remains calm (on the outside at least!). He speaks in a firm tone, chooses friendly words, looks others in the eye and stands tall. Cool Kyle doesn’t show the bully that they are getting to him. He doesn’t give them what they want – which is power. Cool Kyle makes good decisions such as ignoring rude words, walking away or using an appropriate ‘come back’ which shows that he won’t put up with being treated badly. Peers see Cool Kyle as level headed and not to be messed with.
Over time kids can learn to be more like Cool Kyle. This doesn’t mean that they will feel calm when approached by a bully, but they can learn to portray this. Help your child practise ‘Cool Kyle’ behaviours by role playing bullying scenarios and giving them feedback on how they showed assertiveness. By doing this you are giving your child lifelong skills that can support their development of social skills, confidence and self-esteem. Most importantly, you will be giving your child some tools they can use independently when confronted with peers who bully.
For some children, developing their assertiveness skills will be sufficient. However for kids who have experienced ongoing bullying which has impacted on their mood, behaviour and ability to go to school, professional intervention may be required. Speak with your school or a psychologist if you feel your child may need additional support with dealing with bullying and remember bullying requires a coordinated response and should not be left solely in the hands of the victim.