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How to tackle bullying and what are the conclusive signs if your child is at the receiving end

As schools open post-pandemic, the universal issue of bullying enters through the gates, as well. What constitutes bullying and what are its consequences and how can society help a child

Written by Amit Sen | New Delhi |
May 7, 2022 3:38:33 pm
bullyingBullying is common and complex, and often not very evident (File)

Bullying is central to our lives, and it isn’t restricted to a classroom. It can be at home from siblings, cousins or parents, or even at a workplace. You see, conflicts happen between people but if there is a power imbalance, which could be due to age, physical strength, language, race, religion or ability, and if that position of power is used as means of repeated aggression, be it verbal, psychological or physical, that qualifies as bullying.

What is bullying?

Bullying is common and complex, and often not very evident. Physical bullying is a lot more evident. If a child is pushing or hitting another one or breaking their pencils, you can see it in front of you. But often there’s subtle bullying that happens in the form of name calling, shaming, criticising or being ostracised, which can be really damaging for children. There are also instances among older children of spreading rumours or morphing photos on social media to humiliate the other person.

Short-term effects

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Bullying can be traumatic. It’s a dehumanizing experience and it can make the child feel utterly helpless and at the mercy of the bully. And in spaces that children expect to feel safe, be it a school or home, they don’t feel safe anymore. Look for signs in your child. Children who are bullied will complain of aches and pains, may not eat or sleep well and some may have nightmares, cry easily and refuse to go to school. The younger ones could become clingy or some might start bed wetting.

If it’s happening on a regular basis, a large part of the child’s day goes in anticipating and fearing the experience of going to school. This could have a deep-seated impact on her immediate emotional well-being, and sometimes, this fractured sense of self could become permanent. That feeling of being weak and vulnerable, not being able to speak up or retaliate, feeling like the ‘victim’, all these can surface as complex mental health disturbances later in life.

Long-term impact

The effects of bullying in childhood and adolescence may or may not have immediate consequences, but may begin to show up much later. Young adults who have been bullied in the past could get into violent relationships, feel victimised at work, become bullies themselves, and in extreme cases can develop serious mental health problems such as anxiety, an eating disorder, depression and suicidal behaviours.

How to cope

Being Aware: We have to first break the myths that are associated with bullying. Often, schools will say that “we don’t have bullying in our school,” which is not possible. There’s no place on earth where there is no bullying. Such denial is hugely invalidating towards children who experience bullying. So firstly, we need to understand and be mindful of what constitutes bullying, the different forms it can take and its consequences. People will also ignorantly say, “Oh, it’s just a little teasing, you need to toughen up or speak up.” Such an attitude adds insult to injury and makes the victim feel even more inadequate. It’s important to listen to a child who has mustered the courage to speak about her predicament and support her in every way possible.

Preventive Strategies: More often than not, there are bystanders who will just stare and not speak up, or even enjoy the ridicule instead of speaking up. Such a passive attitude from others serves to empower the bully even more.

In schools, children should be taken through workshops where they can share their own experiences and discuss the impact and consequences of such behaviours. In fact, some children don’t even realise they are being bullies and just making them aware stops them from doing it. Schools must send out a clear message that there is zero tolerance for bullying and that there will be serious consequences whenever it is detected.

Empower the Community: It’s important to call it out. Parents can help to form a community along with the school, listen to their children and stand up for them when necessary. Empower students and teachers to inform and let the school or institution know, and lay down protocols to deal with it. There have to be mechanisms in place to help the parents of the one who is bullied as well. The school must find ways to undo the harm to the victim, perhaps through a public apology or an act of reparation that is assigned to the bully. There are ideas we can borrow from the concept of “restorative justice” in such situations.

In the second part on this topic, we discuss case studies and research in India.

(Dr Amit Sen is a child and adolescent psychiatrist working in Delhi. He has served in the Army Medical Corps from December 1982 to January 1988)

(This column by different experts will appear every fortnight)

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