“In my experience, as a teacher and counsellor, bullying is a symptom of emotional distress”

"In my experience, as a teacher and counsellor, bullying is a symptom of emotional distress"

The theme of this year’s National Anti-Bullying Week, taking place from November 15 to 19th, is ‘One Kind Word’. This annual event aims to raise awareness of the bullying of children at school and elsewhere and to highlight ways of preventing and responding to it.

I believe bullying is one of the most serious and widespread forms of distress that all children can be exposed to. We all know that, just like within society, classrooms are full of sarcasm, teasing and bantering at someone else’s expense. Since it has become a common means of communication, most of it is shrugged off as inconsequential but it isn’t.

Constant taunting is bullying and, if it is not nipped in the bud, it can lead to victims underachieving academically, playing truant from school, running away from home, depression, eating disorders, self-harming and even suicide.

In the last few years, we have seen a huge increase in the frequency and severity of bullying as a direct result of the rise in social media behind which bullies can operate in relative anonymity. Cyber bullying is any form of bullying which takes place online or through smartphones and tablets using social networking sites, messaging apps, gaming sites and chat rooms.

In addition, children see powerful negative role models using aggressive behaviour in film, on television and play stations. These models glorify the negative values of physical prowess, bad language and aggression – both male and female – who defeat their enemies by violent means.

“In school, bullies often suffer from low self-esteem and self-hatred and can compensate for this by being in charge and control of a gang”

Instead of acknowledging bullying as a totally unacceptable form of behaviour, many adults, including some teachers, argue that it is part of human nature and that kids have to learn to deal with it as part of growing up. While none of it could be categorised as a criminal offence, the fact that it involves the use of aggression with the intent of hurting another person, it has to be regarded as abhorrent and very unkind behaviour.

Bullying, which always involves an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim, takes three broad forms: physical, verbal and emotional. A fourth form, that takes on a menacing perspective involving demands of the victim by the bully, is less common. In my experience, as a teacher and counsellor, bullying is a symptom of emotional distress, certainly on the part of the bully and, sometimes, even on the part of the victim too. For both parties, it can be a subconscious cry for help.

There seem to be several common characteristics that produce and typify bullies, most of which stem from family dynamics rather than social or economic considerations. Bullies are often bullied themselves at home and raised in a family which uses intimidation and sometimes violence as a means of control and not allowed to express their feelings and emotions safely.

For both bully and victim, the ‘relationship’ between them can be an outlet for the suppressed feelings around the suffering and torment they may be experiencing at home. Children often ‘act out’ the relationship they have with their parents where they may have learnt to equate abusive attention with love.

Consequently, there are some victims who seem to enjoy the attention bullying can engender, albeit negative, and others who switch from being bullies to victims, and vice versa, as if they are trying to experience and understand both sides of the equation. By ‘feeding off’ and ‘needing’ each other, there can be a dependency between bully and victim that needs to be understood and, hopefully, resolved.

In school, bullies often suffer from low self-esteem and self-hatred and can compensate for this by being in charge and control of a gang. Behind a mask of self-confidence as a mean of self-control, they have a need to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than they feel inside. They are often quite unconscious of the reasons for their need to inflict pain on others as it is a shadow part of their being, an outlet for their suffering.

Their victims can be a scapegoat, replacing the real perpetrator of their suffering on whom they cannot seek revenge without dire consequences. They may have a strong desire to pass on their pain and humiliation, this time as the victor rather than contain it as the victim. Some bullies seek revenge and attack someone who, like themselves, is vulnerable or suffers from ‘learned helplessness’ as a coping mechanism for their own sense of dereliction.

In a state of denial, they will express and project their own feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and displaced anger onto another person.

Bullying not only harms bullies and their victims but also bystanders (witnesses) who can be implicated when they fail to report an incident. Bullying at school would be much easier to deal with if the onlookers were encouraged to report bullies as soon as they started their taunts.

A code of silence can lead to feelings of guilt about not intervening, anxiety because they might be the next victim and powerlessness, somewhat akin to survivor’s guilt.

Bullies are mostly following the behaviour patterns they observe in their daily lives where the ‘strong’ trample and triumph over the ‘weak’. Unless their behaviour is checked early on, young bullies will grow up to be big bullies and wreak havoc out in the world, at work and at home. If they have children they are likely to perpetuate the bullying cycle.

Schools are increasingly aware of the need to offer specific lessons on the dynamics of bullying and nurture in children values such as tolerance and respect for each other, celebrate diversity, as well as provide emotional support for both bullies and victims.

For more information on National Anti Bullying Week and details of where you can source support visit www.nationalbullyinghelpline.co.uk


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