Bullying: What is it, and what can parents do?  

Claudia Cojocea

Being a primary school student is an exciting and truly magical time of life! But not all experiences are pleasant. One of the most difficult things that some children experience is bullying. Bullying is a very serious matter. When it is not dealt with, bullying may leave scars that our children carry with them far into their adult lives. Solving problems with bullying is never the responsibility of children. However, if we want to support our children with this, we need to know more about bullying.

Being a primary school student is an exciting and truly magical time of life! But not all experiences are pleasant. One of the most difficult things that some children experience is bullying. Bullying is a very serious matter. When it is not dealt with, bullying may leave scars that our children carry with them far into their adult lives. Solving problems with bullying is never the responsibility of children. However, if we want to support our children with this, we need to know more about bullying.

As a counsellor and fellow ISL parent, I hope you will read along as I address these important questions that we all need to think about: What is bullying, why does it happen, how can we prevent it, and what can we do as parents?

What is bullying?

It is helpful to know what bullying is, and also what it isn’t. In our everyday language, there can sometimes be a tendency to apply the word bullying to a wide variety of altercations that children may have with each other. However, we must be able to distinguish bullying from the notions of teasing and conflict.

·       Conflicts are disagreements that have reached a level where the relationship has become very tense. Conflicts always involve two parts that are equally invested. In conflicts, both children have something to “win” and “lose”.

·       Teasing can vary in nature and intensity. Teasing can be an expression of a hearty and playful humor. It can contribute to a sense of community and even help solidify friendships. This is for instance the case, when friends tell jovial jokes or anecdotes about each other, and both children enjoy it and stay attuned to each other’s reactions. Teasing is negative if personal boundaries are not respected, and if it is done with the purpose of provoking or upsetting somebody.

·       Bullying is characterized by greater severity than teasing. Bullying involves one person, or a group of people, systematically and intentionally engaging in activities that put another person at risk for being excluded from a community. This is done through acts of aggression carried out repeatedly and over an extended period of time. This may be physical (hitting, pushing), verbal (name-calling, taunting, threatening), or relational (gossiping, backstabbing, forming exclusive cliques etc.)

Why does bullying happen?

We often tend to think that bullying has something to do with the characteristics of individual children. We can be tempted to think that some children bully others because they have bad manners, difficult personalities, or bad parents who “didn’t teach them well”. We may also be tempted to think that some children get bullied because they are too sensitive, too different, too weak or like to “play victim”.

All of the above is incorrect. Research has shown that the true roots of bullying are not located in individuals, but rather among individuals in a given group. As human beings, we all have a deep wish and need to feel that we are valued and have a secure place in our social group. Consequently, we naturally feel very anxious when we are at risk for social exclusion and of losing connection with others in our group. This fear of exclusion is the main driving force of all bullying dynamics. Bullying among children thus tends to develop in groups of children that lack a sense of coherence, identity, and shared positive goals.

When a group of children (such as a class in a grade level) is missing these elements, it affects the way in which individual children relate to each other. Rather than a cooperative venture, the relationship among children in the class may start to resemble a game of musical chairs, or the type of competition that we know from popular TV shows such as Masterchef or The Apprentice. In this type of group, individual children always feel at risk of being the one who is “sent out of the game”. Children may then develop hierarchies, and they may start to push other group members out in order to secure their own position. Excluding certain children may also serve the purpose of creating a sense of meaning and community identity among the remaining children.

How can bullying be prevented?

Bullying lives on the fear of social exclusion and the lack of shared identity and positive goals. However, classes in schools can develop a very strong immunity against bullying. A class with a healthy social environment may be very diverse in terms of cultural background and academic/cognitive abilities, but nevertheless very capable of developing a meaningful identity. In this type of class, everybody feels that they always have a place: their voice is heard and each person’s contributions matter. In these classes, children do not compete with classmates, but gather with them in the pursuit of shared, positive goals. As a result, classmates can develop special friendships, but also seamlessly cooperate with other children outside their immediate friendship circle.

Class teachers and other school staff have a central role in facilitating and nurturing these types of class communities. At ISL Qatar, teacher apply their didactic skills and pedagogic expertise for this work. It is also deeply integrated into the school values and the curriculum itself. When children gather around their shared inquiry process, they also build a community in which everybody’s contribution matters.

What can parents do to prevent bullying?

While teachers and school staff obviously carry significant responsibility in nurturing good class communities, parents are instrumental in helping to solidify a positive and inclusive class community. Here are some ideas:

·       Be curious about your child’s classmates

Be interested in your child’s class and classmates! Ask your child about their classmates’ talents and interests. Encourage your child to be a kind classmate by offering his/her help to others. Listen actively to your child when he/she reports about any difficulties with classmates. You can support your child in learning how to see things from other children’s perspectives by asking the child how he/she thinks the classmate experienced the situation. At home, always talk in a respectful manner about classmates and their families.

 

·       Arrange playdates

Playdates at classmates’ homes allow children the opportunity to get to know each other better and deepen their relationships. Often we tend to arrange playdates exclusively with the child’s best friends from school. However, it is a very good idea to arrange playdates with other classmates too, and not only the “best friends”. It can be a good idea to discuss this with other parents, and try to arrange playdates across friendship groups, across cultures, and across local and expat families. I assure you: There is an almost magical effect of playing together in a classmate’s home. Children that have visited each other’s homes seldom bully each other!

 

·       Be mindful with birthday parties

Coming out of the pandemic and its many restrictions, many of our ISL children are now, rightly so, excited for the opportunity to celebrate their birthday with friends from school! Birthday parties are that most amazing thing and are exceptional opportunities for strengthening a sense of community in a class! While receiving a birthday party invitation is exciting, being one of the classmates that never receives one can sometimes be the source of great sadness in a child and give rise to feelings of being excluded from the community. I know that birthday parties can be costly and exhausting for parents. We don’t all have the opportunity to host them. But if you do have the capacity and energy, it is worth considering inviting everybody in the class.

How can parents respond if their child has been bullied or been accused of bullying?

As parents, it can be a deeply distressing if we find that our child has been exposed to bullying at school. If a child reports that he/she is being bullied, we may experience an array of emotions, including significant worry and anger. Our emotions may be just as intense if we our child is being accused of bullying others. We may then feel disbelief, anger and shame. In these situations, there are a number of steps that we can take and important things to keep in mind:

·       Find out what happened!

Let your child tell you what he/she has experienced. Find out where it took place, who was involved, and what exactly happened. In order to find the best route to support your child, it is important to identify if it is in fact systematic bullying that your child is describing to you, or whether it is rather conflict or unwelcome teasing.

 

·       Avoid ruminating about the experience with your child

Give your child ample time and space to talk about what happened and be comforted. Yet, it is also important that you then move on from what happened rather than ruminating on it with the child. Discuss with your child, what his/her wishes are in terms of the class and school. How would he/she like her relationships with classmates to be? What kind of support from grown-ups could be helpful? This information is valuable when you contact the class teacher.

 

·       Avoid a mindset of blaming

As parents, it is very difficult for us to witness when our child goes through painful experiences. When it comes to our children and bullying experiences, we can easily feel helpless. We then go into “fix the problem mode” and start looking for definite answers and explanations. For instance, many parents want to find out which child “started it”. Unfortunately, such definite answers can rarely be found. This is because it is hardly ever possible to pinpoint a clear answer to this “who” when it comes to bullying. Keep in mind, that reasons for bullying are never located solely in individuals. If there are bullying dynamics in a group of children, over time all children in this group may have played varying roles in the bullying.

 

It is also best to simply avoid using popular labelling nouns such as bully, victim, and bystander. These words may cloud our ability to think clearly. This is because they suggest that the activity of bullying is tied to someone’s identity rather than being a dynamic in a group.

 

·       Don’t make direct contact with other parents about bullying incidents

We may understandably become very short-fused the moment we find that our child has been exposed to bullying. In this situation, it is not a good idea to contact parents of other involved children directly.  When emotions run high, this can escalate problems. It is better to contact the school and let school staff be in charge of communicating with other parents about bullying.

 

·        Communicate with the teacher, counsellor and/or school leadership

The number one thing to do when you find that your child has been exposed to bullying is contacting the school – first and foremost the class teacher! The class teacher must know about your child’s experiences and your concerns in order to take appropriate action. However, sometimes parents may be so shocked that they send emails to teachers with stern demands or with threats of complaints. However, teamwork seldom works well in the shadow of threats, and it is essential that we model constructive communication to our children.

If you find that the teacher has difficulties comprehending your situation, please remember that you are always welcome to contact one of the school counsellors or the school leadership for support in communicating with teachers.

While bullying can present a serious hazard to children’s wellbeing and development, it is a group dynamic that can be prevented and changed when adults support children in building safe and positive communities. The school as well as parents play a crucial role in supporting children’s sense of belonging among their classmates.

If you have questions or concerns regarding your child and the topic of bullying, you are always welcome to visit one of the school counsellors.