Bullyingis sadly a common everyday occurrence for many children. It can be a one-off incident or something that continues for years. Learning to deal with both the bully whilst supporting your child is something every parent faces.
We associate bullying as being something that happens peer to peer – in other words, a child bullying another child. But what do you do if your child was or is bullied by an adult?
What is bullying?
According to dictionaries, bullying is the use of superior strength to intimated someone, typically to force them to do something. Other synonyms of bullying include tyrannize, browbeat, intimidate, cow and coerce.
There are many more besides, but the picture is clear – when someone bullies someone else, they do so to exercise their strength and power, physical and/or emotional, over someone else.
And here’s the rub: we are all capable of being the bully and be bullied. How one person perceives another behavior differs to the next person.
Bullying is an unfortunate human trait that can be done to another human being subtle or overtly. Either way, no matter what shape or form it comes in, no matter who or what the bullying is about, to be the victim or the recipient means it hurts like hell.
As a parent, it is something we see in our own children. We admonish when we think our child is exhibiting bullying behavior, we mop up tears and soothe the hurt feelings when our child is subjected to this kind of behavior.
Some of it goes away, a sign of children growing into mature adults, but the sad fact is, bullying never goes away. As you leave education and start your working life, there it is again – bullying in the workplace.
Who bullies (and why)?
There is no typical bully. One-off behavior happens for all kinds of reasons some of which a ground-breaking study have highlighted. Some of it makes uncomfortable reading;
- Stress and trauma – those who admitted to bullying now or in the past highlighted they had suffered a significant trauma or stress in the last 5 years.
- Aggression – 66% of the 8,000 people who took part in this ground-breaking survey by a British charity who admitted to bullying were male who felt that part of their upbringing and masculinity was based on aggression as a show of power and control.
- Insecurities – especially in relationships were a common thread too.
- They were a victim of bullying too – they had been bullied, aggressively, for long periods of time in many cases. In some cases, this bullying was peer to peer but was also delivered by the adults in their lives.
- Difficult home life – many people who admitted to consistently bullying others said they had a difficult home life.
None of this is meant to dilute the psychological and physical effects of bullying, nor offered as an excuse but it gives a powerful insight into why some people bully others. Of course, this is a snapshot. Sometimes, there are no reasons why someone exerts this kind of power over another with cruel comments or physically aggressive behavior. By looking for reasons, we inadvertently place the ‘blame’ on the victim by asking the victim to understand why they are at the brunt of another’s weakness or distress.
When we apply these possible reasons for bullying to children, we see an emerging picture that if grasped quickly with educational and therapeutic interventions, could be stopped before adulthood.
What we don’t expect is that the line of acceptable behavior drops so low that an adult bullies a child. And not just their own children, either.
Why do we find this difficult to process?
It’s a hypothetical situation but one that is played out in homes across the nation…
Michaela and Rosy are eight years of age and enjoy a good friendship. But like all friends, they sometimes fall out. As a parent, Michaela’s mom wasn’t too worried when Michaela said they had had a disagreement at school that day. But the next day, everything changed.
Rosy’s mum had shouted at Michaela in the yard at home time, calling her a ‘spoilt brat’. Michaela arrived home upset and anxious.
Michaela’s mom considered calling Rosy’s mom there and then, making it clear this was not acceptable. She could yell at her own child all she wanted, but not at hers.
Thankfully, Michaela’s mom thought this through – arguing and falling out with Rosy’s mom wouldn’t be a win-win situation. In fact, they would all lose out.
But not doing anything was not an option either because it would send the message to Michaela that her folks were not available to help her if she had a problem.
Aside from it being a distressing and very public event, it was the perceived imbalance of power of an adult over a child. So, what could you do to deal with this situation?
1 Modeling behavior
Children grow and develop by mimicking behavior around them. It is how we learn to talk and to walk.
But it is more than this – how you treat other people are subtle messages that your child picks up on, mirroring them through life.
You want your kids to be healthy? Then model this behavior – ditch the poor diet and start to exercise. Want your kids to have good manners? Then show them what good manners are – open doors for people, greet people you see, and thank someone when they do something for you.
And so, it isn’t about not dealing with Rosy’s mum, or not letting her know how you feel, but about doing so in a way that is constructive and not destructive.
By not hollering down the phone at Rosy’s mum, Michaela’s mum was modelling a better way to respond (and not react!).
2 A lesson in boundaries
We need to teach our children about boundaries and there are many types. A boundary is a limit and one that shifts and changes as your child grows. When they are a child, as a parent you set the boundaries but as adults, confident they know where their limits are, they set their own;
- Physical boundaries are about how close you allow someone into your space
- Sexual boundaries are your determination of how sexual who will be with someone
- Emotional boundaries are about how you want to think and feel
- Spiritual boundaries are about your right to think and believe what you want
As odd as it seems, boundaries are about freedom because when you or your child has determined their boundaries, they are free to roam within them, confident and self-assured that they are enjoying the different experiences of life.
3 Strengthening self-esteem
Self-esteem is not to be underestimated. It is the ‘thing’ that sets out the roadmap of life. It ebbs and flows but with a base layer of understanding our own self-worth, we feel that our lives are a success.
How confident, valued and worthy we feel and are made to feel, affects our self-esteem. But it can take a battering. When we feel stressed, nervous, anxious or unsure, especially over a long period of time, our self-esteem becomes dented.
The bad news is this: although we can urge, encourage and support self-esteem within our children with love, care and nurturing, the higher plane of self-esteem cannot be bought or applied like a skin lotion. It comes from within.
The answer to the problem
So, what did Michaela’s mum do?
- She reinforced positive behavior with Michaela that sometimes, getting into an argument and hollering at people does not work. It makes a situation like this much worse.
- In terms of boundaries, Michaela always has choices about who are friends. Even though they have been friends since they were very small children, doesn’t mean that Michaela has to hold abusive people close to her or keep them in her life.
>Michaela is not a garbage can for other people’s verbal abuse and neither is she a punching bag, she has the right to walk away. For children, although we often talk about respecting adults we sometimes forget to OK with our kids that saying no to an adult and walking away is acceptable behavior, especially if they feel uncomfortable (back to boundaries again!).
In other words, Michaela was empowered and confident enough to make the right decision for her. She is still friends with Rosy, but she no longer wants to go back to play at Rosy’s house. Instead, she comes to play at Michaela’s.
Michaela’s mom didn’t argue or fight back but some weeks after the event, she did speak with Rosy’s mom so that she knew what had happened. Likewise, another parent who witnessed it informed Michaela’s class teacher, which helped to support Michaela (and Rosy).
All our lives we will run into nasty people. But we don’t have to take on their problems or their history – and this is the strong message that every child needs to learn.