Bullying is not rite of passage, should be checked

Bullying is not about age, size and gender, but about power play in a given situation.

 Even today, physical violence is the only form of bullying that is called out. Source: Getty images for representation.

A class seven student was fatally assaulted by his classmates recently, all this over an allegedly stolen pack of biscuits. The other students got angry with him because he did not own up to it and school authorities decided to punish the entire lot. This and other such recent events should shake us out of our idyllic childhood memory.

Bullying isn’t a harmless rite of passage, it has serious and some times fatal consequences when unchecked. Being aware of a few issues around bullying will go a long way in helping us deal with it.

What does a bully look like?

The stereotypical image of a bully we see in media is of a kid who is big for her age, isn’t good at studies, is constantly angry, beats up people at the first instance and is generally not considered smart. Or, at the other extreme, we have the projection of a boy who looks like any other kid but has evil thoughts driving him – because he is “damaged.”

But what if I said there is a bully in all of us? Bullying is not about age, size and gender, but about power play in a given situation.

I was a bully in school. Though if you ask my parents or teachers, a bully is probably is the last description they would have of me. I do not know what my classmates thought of me then. I was an adult by the time I realised I was a bully.

I was aghast, embarrassed and wondered why nobody pointed it out. I was a smart kid, popular even, because I was also good at sports. I did not pick on kids by myself. But it was easy for me to join other kids who picked on children less smart or less athletic or socially awkward. I was a kid who was appreciated by teachers for being a “good” student. And this “good” student endorsed bullying, in fact, legitimised it.

Looking back now, I realise that school was the one place where I had power. I was seen and appreciated in school, and as a child the only tool I had access to, to show that power, was bullying. I was unchecked, I joined the bullies.

Why did my teachers not see it? Why did my classmates not call me out on it? Even today violence is the only form of bullying that is called out because we assume there aren’t any other kinds of bullying or that physical bullying is the only one that leaves scars.

Kinds of bullying
Bullying, when it is verbal or takes the form of relational aggression, has as much of an effect as violence. I know, because I was a victim of relational and verbal aggression myself. It has had long-lasting effects that I have carried well into my adulthood and it has spilled over into all my personal and professional relationships.

Violence in bullying is never the first stop. It is a slow build up of unchecked verbal and relational aggression. And there is no gender bias here. Girls and boys are equally capable of bullying. Boys have a free pass to get violent and hence it is more visible, while girls resort to excluding, name calling and relational aggression.

How to identify bullying behaviour?

We all have met bullies, we have been bullied and at times we have been bullies. So, how do we identify bullying behaviour in a child?

These are some signs that we can look out for. If the child gets into physical fights or verbal arguments often or he/she spends a lot of time with friends who bully others, then it is worrying. Look out also to see if the child is increasingly aggressive in all situations or gets into trouble with adults at home and/or with teachers frequently. Check if the child taking responsibility or blames others for his/her problems constantly. Is he/she extremely competitive and does not like 'losing'? And finally, does the child guard his/her popularity at all costs? All of these signs would suggest the child needs help.

How to help a child with bullying behaviour?
A child with bullying behaviour is not necessarily evil or a lost cause. Parents and educators can work with the child to help her be more compassionate. One way adults can help is by taking bullying seriously.

No bullying behaviour should be ignored. Statements like “boys will be boys” or “girls are mean” only condones bad behaviour. Children need boundaries. Help them stay within those boundaries and if you talk about consequences for bad behaviour, stick to them.

Also, children learn by watching. If children see the adults discriminate on the basis of gender, skin colour, caste or race, they pick it up. Teach them to be kind, teach them to be inclusive and teach them that differences are okay and not something to be feared.

Keep a close watch to see if they watching TV programmes that encourage bullying. Are they reading books that glorify bullying? Do they have friends with bullying behaviour? Are there adults in their lives who are bullies? Are there significant shifts in their daily lives causing them distress and creating the need to take back control.

Do not hesitate to reach out for professional help if need be. Ensure the child knows this is to help her and not because she is 'bad'. 

How to identify a bullied child?
As with a child who bullies, there are signs that show that a child may be subject to bullying. Are there any unexplained injuries, frequent headaches, stomach aches or has the child been faking illnesses? This should alert parents that something is wrong. See also if there are any lost or destroyed personal items such as clothing, books or toys. See if the child showing changes in eating habits, either by binging or skipping meals.

Another area to watch out for is whether the child is experiencing loss of sleep or a loss of interest in school work. Is he/she making up excuses to skip school, play time or other social situations? Does the child show signs of low self-esteem, self-destructive behaviour including self-harm and suicide talk? These are signs that the child could be struggling with something that is causing him/her a lot of distress.

Often kids who are bullied do not seek help. The reasons for this range from not wanting to appear weak by complaining; fear of exclusion by friends or worse fear that adults may not believe them or punish them for being weak.

When a child comes to us, we should lend a patient ear. It would be futile to blame the child for coming to us. Equally, it would be bad idea to find fault with the other child. It is not helpful to encourage the child to 'give as good as she gets.' As much as it is important for our children to learn to stand up to bullying, the first and foremost concern should always be physical and emotional safety. Once that is taken care of, we must act to stop bullying in all its variants from taking place.

(Padmalatha Ravi is a trained expressive arts therapist and the founder of Nanasu storytellers. She works on skill building in the areas of entrepreneurship, confidence building, bullying, and leadership)

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Bullying is not rite of passage, should be checked

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