Summer is almost over and heading back to school is – for some – an exciting period to catch up with friends or get back into a familiar routine. For others, it will be a time of anxiety because they know that the bullying will start again.
Shocking as it may sound, between 10% and 20% of students have experienced bullying at some point. The figures vary according to what is taken into account, such as verbal abuse, derogatory nicknames, physical violence, being ignored, sexual assaults (including being watched in the loo or having trousers pulled down).
Being bullied is a lonely experience. It is also extremely detrimental to students’ self-esteem. They tend to withdraw into themselves, and their behaviour at home may change for the worse. The most vulnerable are those who are emotionally fragile, who do not have a strong network of friends and family, or who are not equipped to deal with adverse social situations.
Low self-esteem is common in victims; children who are insecure make the perfect targets for bullies who need to feel in control of others. Ironically, bullies often act out of their own insecurities.
Rather than dismissing such activity as typical child behaviour, parents and education professionals must act. Be aware of your child’s changing mood: being irritable, if unusual, may be more than just teen hormones. Look out for the following signs: unwillingness to talk about school, friends, teachers; friends no longer mentioned in daily conversations; moodiness after spending time on the internet or phone; drop in academic performance; complaints about headaches or stomach pains; missing items; anything out of the ordinary.
Questioning a child directly, especially as they enter their teens, is unlikely to get anywhere. To help make your child talk, try starting a casual conversation while doing something physical (redecorating, doing chores together, or even a long drive when there is no direct eye contact). If met with silence, get in touch with his or her teachers. Raise your concerns and don’t give up until you are satisfied something has been done.
Most schools have anti-bullying policies. They usually involve a chain of communication from teacher to the principal. Along the way, someone will be expected to hear the complaining student out and then interview the accused parties. Beyond that, sanctions may be taken against the bullies, depending on the gravity of the accusation.
The school’s responsibility is to campaign against bullying as well as peer pressure, since those who stand by or join in are just as guilty. Sanctions or one-off events, such as anti-bullying days, are not enough. Tolerance, self-confidence and respect should be ingrained in every aspect of the curriculum.
Although talking about the abuse is the best way to find a solution, everyone knows it isn’t easy for a victim to open up. Parents can create an open, tolerant and caring home environment where every member of the family talks readily about the problems they encounter in their daily life and how they solve them.
Lead by example and share your feelings. Opening up takes time, so if parents make it clear they don’t have time, children will just clam up. For bullies and bullied alike, September is a time of high emotions, especially for those joining a new school or group. Parents and teachers can work together to minimize the stress these changes can cause, so that the “rentrée” is as happy a time as it can and should be.
Sabine Hutcheson is Academic Director and Educational Consultant at TutorsPlus