Recently I’ve been reminded that bullying is a pervasive issue in our society and not only our schools. It reminded me of a talk I went to a while back by Pamela Ziman a Johannesburg psychologist who specialises in dealing with bullying in schools. She spoke about the extremely detrimental effects of bullying on its victims. So I’ve gone back to my notes and am going to comprehensively outline what I learnt from Ziman. It’s important to be aware that bullying exists. It’s important to start addressing and standing up to bullies everywhere.

There are Three Types of Bullying

1. Verbal Bullying

We all know the saying, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.’ And we also know that it’s not true. Words hurt, ALOT. Ziman told the story of one boy about whom false rumours circulated that he was Gay. One can imagine the tremendous pain and challenge of an experience like that.

2. Physical Bullying

It’s quite clear what physical bullying is. However with school initiation rites, which clearly are abusive, but are often not reported because of the nature of ‘initiation’, physical bullying can go unreported and even be ‘accepted’ by children. These include bog washing, wedgies, locking a child in a cubicle. Any kind of locking up is abuse!

3. Relational Bullying 

This is possibly the most common and certainly the most unrecognized form of bullying. And I’m sure everyone has experienced it in one form or another. Examples of relational bullying are giving the ‘silent treatment’, sabotaging the person’s other relationships, alienating a person, leaving a person out, ignoring or ganging up on another person. Unsurprisingly this type of insidious bullying is more common amongst girls.

Relational bullying is invisible to everyone else except the person experiencing it, which makes it even more devastating. In fact Ziman explained that rejection by silence and passive aggression is experienced by the person as physical pain. It makes kids and adults feel like they’re invisible, and they don’t exist. She gave the real life example of a boy who invited his class for a birthday lunch, and no one pitched. Heartbreaking and soul destroying.

Notably relational bullying includes cyber bullying, which can be extremely damaging.

This type of passive aggressive bullying is the one that pervades into adulthood. It happens in the work place, in families, communities and of course schools. It’s one of the worst types as it’s cowardly and as quick and easy as silent treatment. This makes it highly effective. The victim can’t play a pro-active role in the relationship and it’s a no win situation for them. The consequences of this are devastating on the victim’s psyche.

The Consequences of Bullying  

The impact of bullying is the internalised distress of the victim where they are filled with anger and hatred as well as self loathing. In extreme cases bullying leads to suicide. At least 100 pupils a year commit suicide because of bullying. It can lead to pathology; the high school gunmen at Columbine said their murderous onslaught was retribution for the bullying they experienced. In fact all young killers are socially outcast and isolated. They want their victims to feel the way they felt.   Depression, anxiety and loneliness are overpowering negative emotions that result from bullying.

The importance of peer relations can’t be overemphasised. When a child is 8-10 years old their peer group begins to compete with their family. There is a strong need to belong and have strong interpersonal relationships. Every child needs connection and acceptance. Conformity peaks in 11-13 year olds and then declines. This also happens to be the the peak time of bullying. The crucial task in childhood and adolescence is developing social relationships. The saying, ‘Childhood is training for life’ is a myth, it’s life itself. Children and their experiences and feelings need to be taken seriously.

The Bully  

The shocking fact is that, according to Ziman, bullies don’t necessarily suffer from a low self esteem or lack a positive self image, as is often thought. ‘Children can be victimised for very trivial and random reasons that has nothing to do with their own personalities. It follows that any normal and well adjusted child can be bullied.’ In fact it’s often the high flyers who are bullied. Girls who are perceived to be a threat are more likely to be bullied.

The characteristics of bullies are that they’re aggressive, impulsive, low in cooperation, low in empathy. They think highly of themselves and have a need for dominance and power. Girl bullies are often socially skilled and charismatic, even seductive when they want to be. They often have to be the Queen Bee.

The Bystander Effect

Often kids stand by and witness bullying, rather than help support the victim. This reenforces the behaviour. The reason they don’t get involved is because they’re scared that they’ll fall prey to being bullied too.

How Do You Prevent Bullying?

  • By inculcating a good self esteem in your child. Low self esteem reveals itself in the ways we behave, our body language etc. It effects the way other people relate to us. Low self esteem attracts negative attention. High self esteem attracts positive attention.
  • Actively listen to your child. Don’t ignore their complaints as mere whining. Speak to the child’s siblings and see if they can help out with the issue.
  • Turn your home into a sanctuary, where your child can feel safe.
  • Move classes, or move schools if necessary.
  • Get your child involved in activities out of school. This allows them to meet kids outside of school.
  • Speak about other options; for example other friends they can make that can protect them from being bullied.
  • Make sure your child has at least a couple of good friends. Often I think it’s quality of friendships rather than quantity of friends. Friends a child can rely on to back them up against a bully. Who they can feel safe with and be themselves with.
  • Stand up to bullies. Take action if your child is being bullied.
  • Speak to the school, social worker and make sure your child knows you’ve got their back.
  • Don’t call a bully’s parents. They can often be aggressive and defensive. Leave that to the school and social worker.

Ziman ended on a hopeful note by saying that any case of bullying will end as friendships and dynamics change. Meanwhile you as a parent need to be strong when your child is faced with being bullied.  It’s important to be aware of your own feelings and reactions. Get support as necessary. You can’t fall apart when this is a time your child needs you to be at your strongest.

Notably being the parent of a bully is just as bad. No child is an angel, every child has bullied or been bullied, usually both, at some stage of their life. Minor or major. It’s still bullying and it has to be dealt with. If your child is bullying, communicate with them. Find out how they feel when they are bullying. What their need is and how they can fill it in a different way. Whatever the case is there needs to be strict consequences for bullying.

Bullying is difficult and challenging. If you’ve been bullied you know about the sick dread in your stomach – the real physical pain of being rejected and put down by another person. No one should have to feel that and that’s why it’s imperative to recognise bullying and address it. Relational bullying is especially pervasive and hard to deal with and is often heartbreaking. Many adults suffer from depression, anxiety and general low self esteem because of being bullied in their families, work place and communities. How much more so our children in our schools.

We all have a duty not to be social, passive aggressive bullies in our own lives and to ensure that our children aren’t either. To teach them that to embarrass another human being is likened, in the Talmud, to murdering them. To pain them is to be avoided at all costs. We’ve all been there, we’ve all behaved in ways we’re not proud of. We’re all human beings, but we’re also all created in the image of God and should strive to emulate the oneness of God, where we treat the other as we’d want to be treated ourselves. This can’t be repeated enough to ourselves and our children. We need zero-tolerance to bullying. It’s just not acceptable.