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Most bullying below radar
I recently attended a seminar offered by a couple of child psychologists on the topic of bullying.
I try to go to discussions of pertinent issues regularly, but sometimes have to choke back the desire to argue with some of the experts. Too many presentations are tangled up with commercial enterprises of promoting a service or selling a book and, as a result, tend to be more alarmist than they need to be.
In my opinion, parents are anxious enough these days; we don't need to make it worse.
In the case of this bullying presentation, it took the form of a warning that being the victim of a bully was devastating and potentially life-altering, that most bullies are victims themselves and can be salvaged, and that parents and teachers should be absolutely intolerant of any behaviour that falls on the scale of one child making another child feel uncomfortable.
I'm not in disagreement with that concept in theory, but if we start with the notion that every look or verbal putdown is life-altering, then we have created a climate of anxiety that will put everyone in conflict.
Parents will blame teachers, other children and other parents; teachers will blame parents and children's peers; children will blame each other in endless rounds of he said/she said while being frustrated that teachers are not always taking their version of the story to be the gospel truth.
I do feel pretty strongly about bullying, having been a victim at one point, for three very long months, of the sadistic tendencies of a neighborhood bully.
I do think that adults need to try their best to catch and correct any form of disrespectful behaviour between students and I do believe that parents should consistently correct their children's putdown or power-broker behaviors. Adults need to talk about and reinforce respectful relationships all the time.
Still, I do not, for a moment, look through the rose-colored glasses that says that if the adults are attentive to such behaviours that they will go away. I know, for a fact, that most bullying goes on below the radar of adults.
Kids who bully are usually incredibly sneaky and extraordinarily effective in making even the most innocent moment feel terrifying. While adults must be vigilant, children must also be taught to handle bullies. I do not believe they will gain the confidence to do so if the parents go running to the teachers, the adults all get in a frenzy, and the child becomes a pawn in the process of solving a problem.
The child needs to have a voice of his or her own.
I teach both study skills and health to students in Grades 6-12. In both of these subjects, we discuss the topic of bullying. Once I describe typical bullying patterns, most kids admit they have done some of them. Most also admit they have been victims of them. Most can accept, readily, that they do not feel particularly picked on because they see it happening to others and realize that some days you're the pigeon and some days you're the statue. They give and take and don't personalize every putdown. They are resilient.
For others, often the more timid and sensitive personalities, bullying actions strike them much more deeply and a true bully notices and will circle for more.
For kids who are just yapping with no real bully intent, they rarely notice the impact of their words and move on, perhaps to hurt another day or another person.
In both cases, the victim missed an opportunity to feel some control, might have assumed a greater feeling of victimization or perhaps even encouraged the bully to come back for more.
My advice to students is simple: if they feel someone says something mean to them, or physically pushes them, they need to say something "don't speak to me like that," or "don't touch me," sends a clear message that the action is offensive and will not be accepted.
On a second offense, it should ramp up: "I've asked you not to speak to me that way and if you don't stop, I'll ask an adult for help."
Anxious parents, hysterically running off to courses or sessions with psychologists are not the answer to bullies.
Giving children a voice, reinforcing respectful behaviours at home and school, identifying the true bullies and having them get the counseling they need all appeal to me as having a better chance of reducing the problem for everyone.
I think if speakers are to serve parents, they need to reduce anxiety with realistic suggestions, not increase the anxiety through fearful scenarios.
Graham Hookey is the
author of Parenting Is a Team Sport