Teaching children to minimise their risk of being bullied
Bullying never seems to go away. Now that we have statutory requirements for school anti-bullying policies and an anti-bullying week to call attention to schools’ challenges in setting up a no-bullying ethic, we would like to think that things have changed since the bad old days, when bullying was greeted with a giant shrug. However, we only have to read the newspapers to know that problems still exist, with an increase in violence at school and new ways to torment children appearing all the time. Indeed, the relatively new phenomenon of cyber violence can threaten a child 24 hours a day, even at home.
The results of bullying are frightening. Severely bullied children are often truants and self-harmers who contemplate or even attempt suicide. They may be left with emotional damage that affects them for the rest of their life. School bullying can spill out onto the streets, and can spread via mobile phones and the internet. Bullies, too, often don’t thrive in future life, with a high proportion going on to commit criminal offences.
None of this is new to many parents of children with SEN, especially those who are mainstreamed. It is an unpleasant truth that children and young people who are deemed “different” are often targeted by the bullies, though why this happens is not easily explained. Bullies come in as many varieties as their targets; some may never have learned any other behaviour in a bullying home, some have not learned, or are unable to learn, social behaviour, and others deal with their own fears by tormenting their peers. Another group pick on the vulnerable as a way to be one of the pack. Surprisingly, many bullies were once badly bullied themselves.
Bullying behaviour has many manifestations and a bully may choose several techniques. Physical bullying, such as intentionally bumping into another child or hitting and threatening, is very common. Often, verbal bullying works just as well; name-calling, spreading rumours, cruel nicknames and teasing designed to hurt are all behaviours that can start in early childhood and gain in refinement and the harm they cause as children get older. Emotional intimidation can involve excluding a child from a group, from a party or in the playground, and is especially prevalent at the end of primary school and beyond.
Other bullies rely on racial slurs or sexual bullying, often involving unwanted physical contact or comments. Many children with SEN suffer taunts that centre on their vulnerabilities. We might think that children who are most vulnerable would attract sympathy and support from other children but, sadly, too often this is not the case.
Protecting your child
The best defence from bullying is to “bully-proof” your child from the earliest years. This is as important as teaching guidelines for street safety or stranger danger.
Most young children can learn to stand up straight, look others in the eye and project confidence, and they will get better at these things as they grow older. You can make a game of it in the early years. The aim is for the child to look less vulnerable. Bullies are quite savvy about body language and will read children for clues to their self-confidence and the likelihood of them crumbling or withstanding their attack. Your child will eventually learn that, however scared they feel, it is best to look untroubled. How they handle themselves physically will give them armour against bullying. Of course, it is important not to look too challenging either, as this could be seen as another invitation to attack.
Many tools to protect against bullying will also help children throughout their lives. They relate to how children respond when they are worried or angry, how they relax when they have had a bad day, how to make and keep friends, and where to find support when they need it. The ways of dealing with these challenges must be tailored to each child’s age and ability. For instance, young people on the autistic spectrum have trouble with social cues, but many can learn how to keep safe and learn appropriate ways to make a friend. It is good, too, to encourage your child to have a wide variety of interests, especially as adolescence approaches. Children who run into bullying need other avenues to pursue friendships; finding others who share their interests, especially if they are not mainstream, can enrich their lives.
Being the parent of a bullied child is extremely difficult. Bullied children tend to be secretive, especially as they grow older and find the internet, and very gentle children often blame themselves. It is useful to develop a good listening relationship with your child from an early age, and to maintain a regular time when you talk. Of course, there are some tell-tale signs of bullying to watch for. These include, missing and destroyed belongings and schoolwork, sleeplessness, unexplained crying or anger, loneliness, nightmares, depression, school phobia, and other changes in behaviour. Asking your child directly may work. Visit the teacher if you suspect anything, though again, bullies are secretive and well-equipped to find undercover ways to torment, especially through a mobile phone, a social networking site or other less visible ways. Schools are, however, required to have an anti-bullying policy that sets out actions and consequences, and any parent is entitled to a copy.
Even most children severely damaged by bullying can learn the skills they need to turn the bullying off. The techniques you use may need a bit of adaption though. For example, when teaching deaf children how to shout a strong, definitive “no”, a piece of paper that trembles when they show enough force can be used to enable them to visualise their success. Developing techniques that work for your child may be challenging, but teachers at school should be more than willing to help. After all, a school where bullying is blocked is a place where children thrive.
Catherine Calvert is from the charity Kidscape, which provides information and help to bullied children and their families. The charity also offers a training guide for teachers of children and young people with SEN: