10 ways you can help and why.
You freeze. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Your blood boils. You are resisting full fight mode. ‘Don’t say anything – it’ll make it worse!’ says a little voice. The same little voice that has been gathering all its strength for hours, days, weeks, months, (years even) … to tell you they’re being bullied. Or try to explain they’re being pushed out, just little by little, until they’re made to feel worthless and humiliated. Or – if they’re really brave – to finally find the courage to tell you they believed by sending that nude photo, they’d be liked and accepted – but instead it’s been sent to everyone in the WhatsApp group (the one that was set up especially to talk about them) and now they just want to crawl under their duvet and hide from the jubilant taunts of the keyboard warriors.
Toxic. Insidious. All too common. But what do we do? They’re right. We may very well make it worse if the systems we rely on are not fit for purpose.
‘Bullying’ – a soft and liltingly unsatisfactory word that fails to convey the true emotional turmoil it creates. Seeping into every walk of life, it is an ugly manifestation of the human ego – an unhealthy desire to bolster self-esteem by shaming others (arguably projecting the inherent shame of the perpetrator). And it’s in us all. It’s a flaw in our human make-up. None of us knows when we might succumb to its draw, in whatever subtle guise it shadows us. We must be constantly on our guard, because if we use our power, in whatever form, to cause pain to those we perceive to be weaker, we go there. We might not intend to, we might not notice we’re doing it, we might justify it in all sorts of intellectual ways – but we go there.
I teach teenagers and I coach adults but when it comes to bullying, the hallmarks are the same. The bullied pay and so do the bullies. There are no winners in the long-run. The pain bullying causes makes it hard to believe (or care) that the bullies suffer too. But they do. Often, whilst belittling others they achieve artificially high self-esteem (as this strategy works in the short-term), but their deeper-rooted issues are always there, inevitably coming to light later. In the short-term, unfortunately, this cruelty is serving a purpose and its rewards are often more powerful than the threat of a telling off, a detention – even an exclusion. These punishments aren’t enough to warrant giving up that temporary escape from their pain. Bullying is as old as time and without sounding entirely defeatist, won’t ever be eradicated entirely.
But… and this is a big but… there is a lot more that can be done to protect our children if we look at the bigger picture. If traditional deterrents aren’t working (and we know they often don’t), we need to get to the root cause rather than simply treat the symptoms. And it needs to start early, because you can bet your bottom dollar, the bullies in the workplace were in the thick of it as kids. They may have been bullied or they may have been bullies or they may have witnessed bullying, but they certainly didn’t invent it when they reached 38 and the dizzy heights of middle-management.
And don’t get me wrong, we do a lot already: ‘Stop Bullying’ campaigns can make an impact (especially those that target the ‘laugh-alongs’); punishments sometimes feel necessary and arguably could be harsher; victims can be encouraged to rise above their attackers etc. etc. But all these surface-level, and often reactive methods, fail to address a fundamental problem: bullies often can’t stop. They feel deep shame and need help. And they don’t hide this fact: they are screaming out for help, sometimes from a very young age.
It is widely accepted that one of the most distressing childhood experiences is to be a victim of bullying. However, where is the investment in addressing it? We have an arsenal of over 400 types of therapy on this planet – but when it comes to bullying, we seem to default to the good old poster campaign. And its unfit for purpose. According to the charity Bullying UK, bullying is a significant issue in many schools but the way it’s dealt with makes all the difference – so let’s deal with it better. That doesn’t mean hard-working teachers working harder, it means government investment.
The advice for children who are being bullied is to speak out and tell someone. But as parents, what advice can we give them when they do? We are right to engage their school, certainly, but can we trust that schools have access to best practice solutions? For the lucky ones, counselling can have a huge impact. Current advice suggests that changing your body language can make a huge difference to whether the bullies notice you; this is something a counsellor or therapist can work on in the form of role play or creative therapy in order to empower the client with the ability to step out boldly and look confident, even if they are not feeling that way on the inside. How many children (and adults for that matter) who need this support, can access it in a timely manner? In my experience, not many.
Coaching can also help both the bullied and the bully. It is based on the premise that the coach engages in active listening, paraphrasing and summarising the client’s words to clarify their meaning. Through the development of the core conditions as set out by Carl Rogers (empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard), a coach can create a supportive relationship where goals can be set and achieved. If it is the bully who is being coached, this is also an opportunity for them to admit to themselves how they feel about their actions. By offering alternative perspectives, the coach is able to prompt re-consideration of options and provide the chance to explore various different courses of action.
Bullying is something that society has to confront head on. All schools have policies that set out the stages of dealing with an incident in terms of punishing the perpetrators, however not all schools are able to offer emotional support to the victims and bullies that is consistent enough to enable them to heal. Schools that have an integral counselling service and adopt a coaching philosophy are best placed to serve the needs of both students and staff. Luxmoore discusses the importance of an institutional culture that is open, honest and free of anxiety; a culture where asking for support is considered ‘normal’ and even ‘admirable’.  It is within this environment, that students feel comfortable and confident to come forward and seek help.
And yet, even with the knowledge that talking therapies work, bullying is still hugely prevalent in our schools (and workplaces!). In lieu of society stepping up, what can a worried parent dealing with a bullying bombshell actually do to make life that little bit easier for those suffering? At Dragonfly: Impact Education, we recommend the following:
- Wrestle your inner grizzly bear – be aware of you own emotions and reactions, but as separate from your child’s issue.
- Listen to child and let them feel a sense of control about the situation.
- Ask your child to write down everything that’s happened or help them do this. Where s/he has felt powerless, techniques to help them feel more empowered are useful.
- Talk to the member of staff at school that your child feels most supported by.
- Even better, write to the school and follow this up with a chat – include your child’s words.
- Ask to see a copy of the school’s bullying policy.
- Ask what intervention is being put in place for the bully. A simple punishment may not be enough. Suggest they may also need more support.
- Check the bully’s parents/carers have been engaged.
- Ask about counselling or coaching or other empathetic therapy for your child.
- Contact charities such as Bullying UK for support.
 Nick Luxmoore, School Counsellors Working with Young People and Staff