Childhood bullying can have a lasting effect on mental health, traumatising the bully as well as the victims.
By Dr Vihan Sanyal
Many parents don’t take bullying seriously. Let’s look at some parent responses to a child who has been bullied at school: “What happened to you, did you get into a fight with someone? Did they beat you up? I don’t want to ever see you come home after been beaten up by your school mates,” “So they abused you and called you names, next time just abuse them back.” Some even say, “Oh, my son goes to a good school, they don’t tolerate bullying at their school.” Bullying is a serious issue and needs to be dealt with compassion, understanding and sensitivity.
I work with adults who had been bullies themselves or had been bullied as a child. The remorse I see in the eyes of the adult for their actions when they were younger is difficult to express in words. I just wish I could have worked with them when they were children, for it’s much easier to help prevent disorders than to bring about a positive change in an adult.
What is bullying?
Any unwelcome behaviour, where an imbalance of power exists between students. If the behaviour of the bully remains unchecked, then it has the potential to be repeated. At times, bullying turns into harassment, especially when a person is victimised for their race, gender, background, disability or sexual preference.
Who is likely to get bullied?
Anyone can get bullied at school, however, children who are timid, physically weak, shy, low on self-confidence, appear nervous and become easily frightened are most likely to be alienated and bullied. The victims are usually loners, who don’t have many or any friends. They feel comfortable in adult company rather than with children of their own age.
What are the long-term psychological effects of being a victim of bullying?
The psychological impact of bullying on young minds can become a lifelong battle. The range of mental disorders that are a direct result of bullying are vast, from anxiety disorders, obsessive behaviour, trauma, depression to more severe forms of mental illness. These issues can cause eating or sleeping disorders and inhibit the person from enjoying life. The victims often have troublemaking and keeping long-term relationships. They are also at a high risk of attempting suicide.
Emotional harm often lasts longer than physical harm. The victim’s self-image may be permanently damaged. A victim of bullying can begin to see themselves like the bully sees them, as being weak and as a loser. This can result in the person feeling unloved, filled with self-hate and angry at the world. They feel incompetent to handle stressful situations, become nervous if they need to speak in public and tend to exhibit non-assertive behaviour in general. It can result in a range of personality disorders. They may also have difficulty trusting people, not be able to progress into leadership roles at work, and tend to be loners as adults. They tend to work better on their own and may require constant approval from their superiors of their work.”
Defusing a few myths associated with bullying
Boys get bullied
Girls get bullied just as much. They are often victims of cyber-bullying. Girls are often victimised for their looks and physical appearance. Body shaming can lead to a girl becoming self-conscious and can cause eating disorders. Even a thin girl can begin to see herself as being fat.
Children need to deal with their own issues
Parents, teachers and guardians need to keep a watchful eye and intervene quickly to stop a child from getting bullied. Every adult can and needs to help the victim from getting bullied further. The victim needs to know that they are not alone. They also need to teach children life skills so that children are able to fend for themselves if the need arises.
Bullying is always physical and verbal
Bullying can be subtle in nature. The bully can victimise a child with gestures and with actions. It does not need to be name-calling, verbal abuses or physical fights. Anything which makes the victim feel uncomfortable can be constituted as bullying. The behaviour is usually repeated by bullies.
What about the bully?
The bully has often been a victim of bullying themselves. They usually look for a weaker person than themselves, an easy target and feel a sense of satisfaction by tormenting them. The bully needs as much help as the victim.
As adults, bullies at times live a life of remorse and regret their actions during school years. They would do anything to reverse their actions if given a chance to go back in time. They often hate the person they were in school. Old memories of being a bully, haunts and torments them. As adults, they tend to suffer from psychological disorders like anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What preventive measures can be taken?
The following preventive measures can help children enjoy a healthy childhood:
Life skills lessons being taught at school.
Supportive behaviour of parents at home.
Teachers being vigilant and taking necessary actions without delay.
Every school should employ mental health counsellors who are trained to prevent and handle cases of bullying.
Schools need to be proactive in engaging with the parent, school counsellor and an external professional (Child Psychologist or a Psychiatrist) to ensure that timely care and support is provided to the children involved.
Counselling and Psychotherapy
Counselling and psychotherapy is likely to be the first choice of treatment for children. Many schools have in-house counsellors who schedule and work with children who are bullies or are the victims of bullying. Play Therapy and Sand Therapy is useful for younger children. It helps a mental health professional assess the child when they are relaxed and at play (when they are being themselves). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, MNLP & Transactional Analysis is more useful when it comes to working with older children.
Many times, children require medication for their condition. If the problems are not addressed successfully with therapy, then medication may need to be included. Parents can seek the help of a psychiatrist (preferably one who specialises in child psychiatry) in order to ensure that children get the best possible cure.
I would like to tell parents to be cautious and vigilant with their children. Befriend your children and know what is going on in their life. Help them to deal with bullies, teach them to stand up for themselves and against bullying. If required, seek the help of a professional counselor or therapist.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist.)